The Goddess of the Broom and Gangster Opposition to Reform in the Vendor Markets of New Delhi

While Goddess worship was common to many societies before the advent of Christianity and Islam, India is the only country in the world where the 5000-year-old tradition of Goddess worship from the time of Indus Valley civilization has continued uninterrupted and even flourished despite repeated onslaughts by hostile invaders.

Unlike the ‘God” of Abrahamic religions, Hindu devis and devatas are not distant heavenly figures, but a living presence in most people’s lives. Various gods and goddesses take an avatar and descend on earth to appear among ordinary mortals when they feel that the battle between Dharma and Adharma requires their helping hand. All these avatars are different manifestations of the same divine force-Vishnu for devatas and the Great Mother Goddess for devis. Among goddesses, the three preeminent avatars are Ma Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity; Ma Saraswati-symbolizing wisdom, scholarship, arts and aesthetics; Ma Durga, the warrior goddess who vanquishes the forces of evil to reestablish Dharma.

Through this hoary journey, while many ancient goddesses have maintained their sway, some others have lost their pre-eminence. Most importantly, Hindu goddesses in the Indic universe keep reappearing in newer versions and avatars keeping in view the demands and challenges of that time. A good example of such a new avatar was Ma Bharati (Mother India), who became the presiding deity of the freedom movement during British colonial rule. But her importance has grown phenomenally in post-Independence India. Hindus don’t mind if people are not deferential towards traditional devis and devatas but loyalty to Bharat Mata has become the litmus test for patriotism because she treats all her children alike, no matter what gender, religion or caste they belong to.

This chapter charts the avatar of yet another new goddess in contemporary India, Broom wielding Manushi Swachhanarayani on 12th March 2005. She combines the qualities and powers of the pre-eminent trinity Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga along with several new attributes needed to combat the wrongdoings by the government in contemporary India.

In order to lend strength to MANUSHI’s long battle to protect street hawkers from routine assaults on their livelihood and huge extortion rackets legitimized by colonial laws which treat their legitimate occupation as an “illegal activity” despite the fact that no urban centre can function without street vendors, she came to our aid when we were facing violent attacks by extortionist mafias backed by the police. We were targeted for attacks because we had planned and executed a model market for street vendors in Sewa Nagar area of South Delhi to showcase to the city administrators how street vendors can be accommodated in the urban landscape in an orderly and aesthetic manner instead of appearing as a source of urban chaos and squalor.

Though MANUSHI began as a women’s rights, human rights journal in 1978, it did not stop at merely writing about the challenges faced by the marginalized and vulnerable sections of the population. We have followed up on significant issues we raised through our writings or through documentary films we made till we succeeded in reaching viable solutions. In the process, MANUSHI got involved in sustained advocacy campaigns as well as ground-level organizing in order to push for policy and law reform on behalf of vulnerable groups of our society.

A good part of such battles involved using public interest litigation (PIL) on a variety of social concerns ranging from women’s rights, environmental safety and protection of constitutional rights to equality of vulnerable groups of our society.

How MANUSHI became involved in working with street vendors: My personal involvement with the street vendors began after watching very nasty clearance operations against street hawkers in and around Lajpat Nagar area of South Delhi where MANUSHI office was once situated. On an impulse, I began filming the brutality of such operations and interviewing the targeted vendors on video camera. The result was a documentary film in Hindi entitled Udarikaran: Kewal Oopar Ka Udaar? Roughly translated it means Liberalization, Only for the Top Players?

This film was telecast over the state-owned television channel, Doordarshan, as part of a series that I was commissioned to make in 1996. The film provided a graphic description of the numerous ways in which street vendors and cycle rickshaw pullers are harassed and fleeced by the police, municipal officials and local politicians thanks to the arbitrary laws governing these two mammoth groups among the urban self-employed poor that make them easy targets of extortion rackets.

After seeing this film on national television numerous vendors and rickshaw owners began knocking at the doors of MANUSHI office to seek our help in finding remedies to their problems and representing their case before the authorities. I did not have the heart to say, ‘my job was only to showcase your problems, now you fight your own battle’. So, I plunged myself headlong into the battle without realizing the enormous risks involved in this work. Nor did I expect this engagement to consume such a large portion of MANUSHI’s time and resources for decades to come. In this chapter, I will focus on the long-drawn sustained advocacy campaign for policy and law reform for vendors and save the story of cycle rickshaw policy reform for some other day.

In order to equip ourselves better, we undertook a more extensive survey of the plight of vendors in different parts of Delhi so that our own understanding of the situation was well-honed. Simultaneously, we began presenting the facts to concerned bureaucrats, members of parliament and senior police officers—most of whom were hostile to the very existence of vendors. This mindset is inherited from the so-called developed western countries which are regulation freaks. In addition, whenever we were informed of an ongoing clearance operation, MANUSHI volunteers would rush to the scene and join the targeted vendors in resisting their forced removal. Often the presence of our video camera put the municipal raiders and police on the defensive and they would withdraw because they didn’t want to have their devilish deeds recorded on camera. But it was an exhausting cat and mouse game without any end in sight since municipal inspectors carry out such operations all over the city as a daily routine. We could not possibly match their strength and power to inflict harm.

However, a major breakthrough came in 2001 when in sheer desperation we approached the then Central Vigilance Commissioner, Mr. N. Vittal to seek his intervention in preventing the extortionist mafias from wrecking the livelihoods of street vendors and fleecing them to the point of desperation. Mr. Vittal agreed to preside over a public hearing of street vendors on 25 May 2001 in which hawkers from different parts of Delhi narrated their woes and we screened my documentary film on the plight of hawkers and cycle rickshaw pullers. Mr. Vittal was moved enough by what he heard and saw to shoot off letters to then Prime Minister Sh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee as well as the then chief minister and Lt Governor of Delhi suggesting that the corruption and tyranny exposed by MANUSHI receive due attention.

Then the most unexpected happened. On August 28, 2001, the day we were holding a second public hearing of cycle rickshaw pullers, I received a copy of a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)  that he had addressed to the Lt. Governor of Delhi along with a Concept Note prepared by the PMO which laid out a new policy framework to replace the noxious Licence-Quota Regime with a rational, liberal scheme that made it easy for vendors to have legal status.

This historic intervention was made possible because Mr Vittal’s impassioned plea plus media reports of this public hearing caught Prime Minister Vajpayee’s attention. He also happened to have a personal connection with Manushi Magazine and read it regularly when he was the leader of the opposition. I got to know of this much later. He, therefore, directed the then Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office, Mr. Prodipto Ghosh, to draft a new policy for vendors and rickshaw pullers. The Concept Note openly endorsed MANUSHI’s findings regarding extortion rackets flourishing due to the restrictive licensing policy and accepted MANUSHI’s plea in favour of extending the benefits of economic reforms to the self-employed segments of India who constitute the majority of our workforce, instead of confining the agenda of liberalization to the corporate sector which employs no more than four per cent of India’s working population.

All over the world, policies regarding street vendors come under the domain of municipal agencies. This is perhaps the first time anywhere in the world that a new policy framework for street vendors and rickshaw pullers was crafted by the highest office in the land, the PMO.

An important reason for PM Vajpayee’s unusual intervention was that his attempts to liberalize the Indian economy were being virulently attacked by the political left as a sellout to corporate interests and multinationals. Therefore, he found the ‘Bottom-Up Agenda of Economic Reforms advocated by MANUSHI appealing and rational. Therefore, he grabbed the opportunity to give economic reforms a pro-poor face.

An important fall out of this intervention was that the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation was asked to set up a National Task Force for Street Vendors in early 2002 in which MANUSHI played a lead role. The recommendations of this Task Force resulted in a National Policy for Street Vendors, which was approved by the Vajpayee led government in January 2004.

Previous attempts at reforming conditions for street vendors: Even before the intervention of MANUSHI, street vendors, through their unions as well as individually, had fought long-drawn-out battles for their right to livelihood, both on the streets as well as through the courts in almost every state of India. But, most of the struggles by vendors’ unions had been limited to demanding that their members be given licenses and the quota of licenses be enhanced. But they never challenged the quota system per se. The major paradigm shift brought about by MANUSHI was to demand that the number of hawkers in any city or town ought to be determined solely by market demand rather than arbitrary bureaucratic quotas. This requires dismantling the existing License- Quota- Raid- Raj which allows the municipal agencies to first deny hawkers vending licenses and then uses their illegal status to declare them as illegal encroachers leading to routine “Clearance Operations” and a reign of terror and corruption.

An important breakthrough for street vendors came through a landmark judgment of 30th August 1989 delivered in the Sodan Singh and Others Vs NDMC case (1989)   whereby the Supreme Court ruled that “…the fundamental right of livelihood under Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution cannot be denied to street/pavement hawkers…” and that “street trading should be seen as a “legitimate trade, business or occupation”. The honourable Court ruled that “…The fundamental right of livelihood under Art. 19(1)(g) of the Constitution cannot be denied to street /pavement hawkers…” The Supreme Court also ordered that street traders be subject only to “reasonable restrictions”.

In the Sodan Singh Vs MCD judgement, the Supreme Court set the following absurd qualifying criteria for applying for tehbazari:

Another important case was that of Gainda Ram and Others Vs MCD and Others filed in 1986. In this case, in an order dated 12 March 1993, the Supreme Court once again endorsed vending as a legitimate occupation but laid down absurd qualifying criteria for applying for a regular tehbazari license:

Persons who could “prove” that they had been squatting continuously at a particular spot between 1970 and 1982 and whose names were contained in the survey report prepared by the MCD in 1982 were to receive first priority for grant of tehbazari in a fixed spot subject to the scrutiny of their claims and proof of nationality.

How was ‘continuous squatting” to be established? By producing challans of “removal charges” or receipts issued by municipal inspectors admitting confiscation of goods each time they removed the applicant by force or took away his/her goods.

These challans were required to specify that the goods were confiscated from the same spot from the same person year after year. Unfortunately, municipal inspectors rarely give challans or receipts of confiscated goods. They just take them away by force. In any case, no challan ever mentions the place, leave alone the exact spot from where the goods have been confiscated.

In addition, the applicant had to prove that he/she is a bonafide resident of the city. This too was an unrealistic requirement since most vendors are migrants from rural areas while their families continue staying in the village. Therefore, their identity papers such as voter cards, ration cards, invariably mention the village address.

The thoughtless conditions imposed for tehbazari qualification gave rise to a full-fledged ‘Bogus Challans Manufacturing Industry’ in every municipal office. MCD touts took thousands of rupees from each vendor to prepare bogus challans and prepare the “file of documents” required for eligibility. Each file cost Rs 20,000 to 40,000, depending on the business potential of the location. Lot more money was demanded moving the file for final allotment.

Despite all this, most of these applications were rejected on one ground or another.

The vast majority couldn’t manage the hefty ‘payoffs’. Only 85000 vendors from MCD areas and 10,000 persons from the New Delhi Municipal Corporation area managed to procure those bogus documents and apply.

Only 2300 vendors got clear tehbazari that too after years of court battles. Many of these tehbazaris were sold off in black at exorbitant prices because of short supply. Many others got allotment papers but were not given any designated space for vending. Therefore, it all turned out to be a farcical exercise.

However, even while accepting street vending as a legitimate means of livelihood, the licensing procedures stipulated and sanctified by the Supreme Court in Gainda Ram vs MCD and others (1993) judgment were very arbitrary and irrational. This further institutionalized and strengthened extortion rackets in every city and town of India. That is why MANUSHI’s campaign focused on changing the ground rules of the licensing regime for vendors rather than demanding an increase in the quota of licenses.

However, despite the historic intervention of the PMO and despite landmark Supreme Court judgments, none of the city administrators in India took any steps to follow the guidelines provided in the Prime Minister’s Concept Note. Nor did they bother to implement the orders of the Apex court in two landmark judgements. The Bharatiya Janata Party (hereafter BJP) leaders, in particular, were outraged by the PM’s intervention because the PM had acknowledged MANUSHI’s role in presenting the issue in a new light. Moreover, the radical measures proposed by the PMO went against the interests of corrupt politicians who routinely hold vendors and other sections of urban poor to ransom. Therefore, they did everything they could to sabotage and kill the proposed reforms.

Worse still, the then Lt. Governor of Delhi,  Mr. Vijai Kapoor, who had been entrusted the job of executing the reforms outlined by the Prime Minister, proved to be virulently hostile to the new policy framework because of his open contempt for the urban poor whose very presence he described as an “eyesore and an unwanted nuisance”. Out of sheer vindictiveness, he ordered harsher and more frequent crackdowns on the vendors and cycle rickshaws. Worse still, he got the municipal agencies to declare large areas of Delhi as “Zero Tolerance Zones” for street hawkers and cycle rickshaws. This meant an open declaration of war by the state machinery against vendors and rickshaw pullers. However, the daily assaults on these two groups did not make them extinct, all it did was to escalate the amount of monthly or weekly protection money (called hafta vasooli) demanded of them. As a result, MANUSHI was engaged in constant battles to help vendors and rickshaw owners resist their forcible removal. However, there was no way we could be present in the hundreds of locations targeted every day for beating vendors out through police action or help hundreds of rickshaw owners whose vehicles were confiscated on a daily basis on the spurious charge that they were operating without a license!

Faced with the outright hostility of the city administration of the time to the idea of liberalizing the licensing regime for these self-employed poor, in February 2002 we filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding a stay order on clearance operations and honest implementation of the PM’s New Policy. However, instead of being restrained by Supreme Court proceedings, the city administration and police became even more virulent. Therefore, we had to put that PIL on hold.

Continuous confrontations with the government officials were sapping our energies instead of yielding the desired results. Therefore, we decided to explore ways of winning allies within the government. The first task was to identify and approach the more honest and receptive among senior officers and politicians with hard facts that demonstrate the vital role played by vendors and non-motorized vehicles in the country’s economy and the importance of the services they provide.

Vendors’ Services are Indispensable: Even though municipal agencies and police project street hawkers as an unwanted nuisance, no urban centre can function without their services for the following reasons:

  • In a country of widespread unemployment and under-employment, vendors also generate employment for themselves as well as others involved in the supply chain. The rural poor who arrive in cities every day as economic refugees from the impoverished farm sector often takes to street trading to find an initial foothold in the urban economy.
  • Vendors are the main distribution channel for a large variety of daily consumption products – including fresh fruits and vegetables. They are also a vital distribution network for low-cost goods made in the micro-and home-based industries such as readymade garments, shoes, household gadgets, utensils, toys, stationery, etcetera. Removing India’s street hawkers would lead to a severe economic crisis for all producers who cannot afford to retail their products through expensive distribution outlets in the formal sector.
  • In addition, street traders provide vital services, such as barbering, tailoring head massage, repairing motorcycles and even cars by the roadside as well as on the highways, at a fraction of the price charged in regular commercial markets with high rents and overhead costs.
  • Street vendors keep prices low by working for incredibly long hours with low overhead costs since they often involve family members in running their tiny businesses. They work 365 days a year, with no weekly or even festival holidays, providing essential services to urban dwellers at great cost to themselves and their families.
  • Vendors provide the poor with freshly cooked nutritious food at affordable prices. Street foods are not only far cheaper than restaurant foods but often cost less than home-cooked food, especially if we consider the time spent on procuring raw materials and cooking. Studies have shown that the cheapest street meals, even though cooked under abysmal conditions by the poorest of vendors, often have lower bacterial contamination levels than samples taken from many restaurants because hawkers cook in full public view.
  • Most important of all, street hawking provides a vibrant training ground for the development of entrepreneurial skills and a very effective mechanism for upward mobility for the poor.  For instance, a large proportion of the 1947 Partition refugees rebuilt their shattered lives by undertaking street vending. Within years most grew to be wealthy businessmen and some even built corporate empires. Therefore, these Nano Entrepreneurs need to be encouraged, not shunned.

Even while municipal authorities and the police regard street vendors as an unwanted nuisance, the truth is that vendors appear only in spaces where there is an active demand for their services. Their numbers are dependent on the footfall of customers in that area. Removing them through police action or controlling their numbers through arbitrary quotas in issuing licenses never succeeds in making them disappear. The only way to reduce their numbers in any locality is to regulate the number of customers in that area. But no government is foolish enough to impose a quota on the number of shoppers that come to a Bazar. But governments everywhere in the world target vendors. So that their lives and livelihoods are trapped in a web of illegality and bribery.

There is no way of knowing the exact numbers of vendors in India or even in Delhi since municipalities deliberately avoid maintaining honest records. However, according to the Ministry of Urban Development between 2 to 2.5 per cent of the urban population of India is engaged in street vending. That means that in India about 10 million persons earn their livelihoods as hawkers. The National Capital Region, Delhi, with a population of some 30 million, is likely to host about 600,000 street vendors. However, the vast majority are compelled to ply their business without licenses. When we began work in 1997, no more than 3,000 persons had managed to secure vending licenses from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

And even this pitiful number of licenses were obtained by the lucky few only after prolonged legal battles in the High Court and the Supreme Court of India. The situation was no different in other urban centres in India. As per the data gathered by MANUSHI, in Delhi alone, the estimated annual loss of income suffered by vendors comes to at least Rs 500 crores. This figure was arrived at by MANUSHI on the basis of varying bribe rates mentioned by hundreds of vendors whom I personally interviewed in different parts of Delhi plus the losses suffered by them during “clearance operations” that include confiscation of their goods, mobile carts and destruction of their stalls. Beyond the economic costs, the vendors are routinely subjected to systematic terror, including beatings and various forms of blackmail. In the case of women, this blackmail can take very humiliating forms of exploitation. This is an important reason why in several parts of India one finds relatively very few young women vending on the streets.

Government functionaries get away with such abuse of power because the elite class of citizens want their cities to resemble the suburbs of Los Angeles or Sydney. Therefore, they support the use of harsh, draconian measures to clear out hawkers. With the exception of high-security zones, vendors manage to stage a comeback even in elite areas by accepting higher payoffs. In fact, their numbers have kept increasing with the rapid expansion of urban centres. However, the repeated clearance operations backed by the police has only strengthened the hold of anti-social elements and extortionist mafias who use the ‘illegal’ status of these hard-working Nano-Entrepreneurs to run protection rackets.

To combat prejudice against vendors, MANUSHI created Model Hawker Market in Sewa Nagar: A key argument offered by municipal agencies and the police for not legalising the status of street vendors has been that hawkers create obstructions for other road users and spread chaos and squalor. They also argue that legalising the existence of vendors will mean rewarding illegal encroachments on ‘government land’. There is the wider fear, reflecting the elite interests, that if life is made easy for rural migrants millions more will flood Indian cities, start squatting all over the place and cause a total civic breakdown. Most administrators are also convinced that hawkers and vendors are a sign of a backward economy and that the India of the 21st century ought to eliminate hawkers in favour of modern shopping complexes. Moreover, the sheer numbers involved in hawking petrifies them. Very few city administrators comprehend that the number of vendors in any urban centre is directly proportional to the population size of the city. If the general population is witnessing growth, so will the number of vendors because they appear in response to market demand for their services.

I had also witnessed firsthand how the police and municipal inspectors deliberately promote civic chaos by letting those who pay higher bribes to occupy larger spaces and gain greater visibility by positioning themselves ahead of others, even if it means obstructing other road users and vehicular traffic. This compels others to compete for higher visibility and enlarging their stall space by paying higher bribes than others. Thus, instead of disciplining vendors, the officials encourage disorder because this brings bigger payoffs and makes the general public view street vendors as a nuisance. This is how the farce of Clearance Operations gets widespread endorsement from the articulate middle class and elite sections of society.

In order to combat ill-informed prejudices against street traders, MANUSHI decided to showcase by a concrete example how vendor markets can become an aesthetic and vibrant part of the urban landscape by proper planning and enforcing civic discipline. For example, flea markets of Europe are a great tourist attraction as are the street food markets of Thailand and other East Asian countries – all because there they are made to observe civic disciplines.

We were fortunate that a reform-minded Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer, Mr Rakesh Mehta came in as the Municipal Commissioner of Delhi at that time. Despite his initial misgivings, he gave us a chance to prove through a pilot project, that vendors can be accommodated in the city landscape in an orderly manner and that the existing system of payoffs and protection rackets can be replaced with fee-based access to market spaces. Such measures would also enhance municipal revenues and curb the growth of criminal mafias who fleece the urban poor. We chose the following two markets as our pilot projects. One at Sewa Nagar and the other one outside the Central Government Complex in Lodhi Road (hereafter CGO) which houses a whole range of high-powered government offices whose staff, including senior officers, used to routinely avail the services of street vendors, especially those providing freshly cooked food. Both of these markets had witnessed repeated clearance operations.

MANUSHI offered to organise street vendors to take responsibility for civic discipline, mobilize donations from MANUSHI supporters for this project, design a well-ordered marketplace (for which we hired a young architect) with the civic infrastructure in the area in order to convert the existing chaotic and squalid hawker markets into models of civic discipline, aesthetic planning and arrangements for cleanliness and hygiene. MANUSHI also committed itself to bearing the cost of administering the project and ensuring rent compliance from all those street vendors who opted to become part of the model market project. In addition, we took on the job of redesigning the vending platforms to improve their functionality and aesthetic appeal.

Each vendor who wished to be part of the pilot project voluntarily signed an oath (Shapath Patra) on Rs. 10 stamp paper  agreeing to abide by the following conditions:

  • Pay a mutually agreed-upon monthly rent to the MCD through MANUSHI;
  • Contribute towards the salary of the Cleaning Brigade hired to maintain round the clock cleanliness in the project area;
  • Stay within the agreed-upon Sanyam Rekha(Line of Self Discipline). This involved a commitment not to spread their wares beyond the allotted space and refrain from encroaching the pavement or the road, as is a common tendency among vendors.
  • Promise not to build any extra structures above or outside the allotted stall area;
  • Promise not to sell or rent out the allotted stalls to non-project members;
  • Foreswear the use of violence or abusive behaviour to settle internal disputes. Those who violated this commitment would be subjected to punitive fines;
  • Project members agreed that those who violated any or all of these rules would be subjected to punitive fines; Repeat offenders would have their membership of the project cancelled. That would mean they would have to surrender their respective stalls in the project area.

MANUSHI also arranged loans from a leading bank for vendors to pay for the cost of new stalls. MANUSHI board member and IAS officer, Dr Renuka Vishwanathan, played a vital role in building effective communication channels with the bureaucracy as well as arranging micro-loans from a reputed bank.

In order to protect this project from sabotage, the Municipal Commissioner sought the permission of the Supreme Court for allowing MCD to partner with MANUSHI in executing these projects. He informed the Apex Court that if the pilots proved successful, the same model of civic discipline would be implemented throughout Delhi.  A registered Agreement was signed on 10 April 2003 between MANUSHI and the MCD. It gave MANUSHI the responsibility to execute the pilot projects.


The first big shock came when the MCD declared that it had no money for the improved infrastructure needed to create a model market and asked MANUSHI to arrange for the required funds. This was when we were only expecting MCD to provide just the basic amenities – proper footpaths and drainage which is their responsibility. Fortunately, Rajya Sabha MP from Delhi, Mrs. Ambika Soni responded very graciously to our request for financial support from her MPLAD funds to build the required civic infrastructure in Sewa Nagar while Dr Karan Singh supported the hawker market-facing CGO Complex. Unfortunately, the latter project had to be shelved because of repeated assaults on vendors by the local police despite the clearance we had received from the highest authorities in-charge of the CGO Complex security. But, instead of getting bogged down in yet another battle with the police, we decided to focus on the vendors’ market in Sewa Nagar, driven by the urgency to demonstrate that civic reforms were both desirable, feasible and prove a win-win for all. But we had not calculated the interests of extortion mafias within the government whose interests are at war with national interests. Such a success would make our pilot project an emulation-worthy role model for vendors markets all over India.

The origins of the Broom Goddess in Sewa Nagar vendor market: Three years before MANUSHI received formal clearance in 2004 from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Supreme Court for turning Sewa Nagar into a model of civic discipline, we had already adopted Sewa Nagar as a site to test out our belief that the vendors could be motivated to act as responsible citizens through self-regulation rather than police action. An important starting point was to establish new standards of cleanliness inside the market and make this a key responsibility of the vendors. Despite regular salaries and other benefits from the government, the municipal sweepers do a shoddy job and come only once a day- in the morning. Moreover, they were also taking regular “hafta” (monthly or weekly bribe) from each hawker, amounting to about Rs 100 per month per vendor. Anyone who dares refuse runs the risk of the sanitation inspectors swoops down to seal his stall on the spurious charge of spreading filth. As in other public spaces, Sewa Nagar had piles of garbage strewn all over the place throughout business hours. On MANUSHI’s suggestion, the local committee of Sewa Nagar vendors agreed to organize a Cleaning Brigade, with four full-time persons hired directly by the project vendors to clean the market three times a day. Each vendor contributed Rs. 30 to 50 per month to pay the salaries of these workers.

We quickly realized that as long as the vendors did not internalise the importance of cleanliness and implement the necessary discipline, merely hiring additional sweepers could not achieve the purpose. As long as the associated low status and untouchability with those who picked up the broom, they would never learn the value of maintaining cleanliness as an important sign of self-esteem. To drive home the message that cleaning one’s physical environment is the as sacred duty of every citizen as cleansing our system of governance of corruption and abuse of power, from August 2001 we began the practice of worshipping the humble Broom with all the rituals that go with worshipping regular deities. No one minds sweeping and cleaning their homes. But picking up the broom to clean public places is seen as a lowly job. To overcome this stigma I would pick up the broom and sweep clean filth on the pavements. At such times, vendors would rush and offer to do the job themselves. More importantly, we decided to honour the Cleaning Brigade members in all important meetings through special rituals that are used for honouring high personages or at the time of puja of regular deities. Each vendor was persuaded to keep a Broom and a garbage bin so that they could keep the pavement or road in front of their own stall clean. In these modest ways, we sought to inculcate the culture of civic responsibility among the project members.

The local committee of vendors at Sewa Nagar agreed to MANUSHI’s proposal that on 19 December 2001 we would together draw up a Line of Discipline (Sanyam Rekha) to earmark the area beyond which no stall owner would extend his/her individual stall space or spread goods gaining greater visibility for his/her stall. Some vendors suggested that we involve Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, to bless us. Some others wanted to include Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity since most vendors and even regular shopkeepers start their day by seeking her blessings. MANUSHI emphasized that Lakshmi cannot be expected to dwell in unclean and unhygienic environments. Only a well-maintained, clean market could win the blessings of Ma Lakshmi. Therefore, MANUSHI suggested that the worship of Ma Lakshmi should be accompanied by the worship of Ma Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom, learning and arts because money earned through judicious and honest means alone brings true prosperity. Goddess Saraswati would bestow pilot project members with the foresight and wisdom to build their inner organizational strength through self-regulation.

Moreover, to promote vendor self-reliance, the hawkers needed to avoid internal quarrels and conflicts which had been cleverly manipulated by those who benefited by keeping the vendors divided against each other. Such divisions make it easy to terrorise and fleece them. From the beginning, the making of Swea Nagar into a model of civic discipline and honest business practices required vendors to have the courage to be fearless in their battle against their tyrants and bloodsuckers. Such fearlessness required the blessings of Mother Durga to combat the forces of evil that had engulfed the lives and livelihoods of the street hawkers.

Over time, the yet to be revealed Broom Deity slowly absorbed the qualities and powers of all the three goddesses that we had already called upon –Ma Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga.  But the Broom Goddess emerged to be far more than the sum total of the qualities of the three pan-Indian goddesses and slowly acquired her own distinct identity as Manushi Swachhanarayani. At its simplest, the term Swacchnarayani means the Goddess of Cleanliness. But she was much more than this: some vendors called her the Goddess of Democratic Rights and Good Governance; others saw her as Bharat Mata or Mother India.

Renewed violence against the first Bribe Free Zone in India: By 2004, Manushi Sangathan vendors had succeeded in turning Sewa Nagar into the first Bribe Free Zone for hawkers in India. Since membership of the project had given these vendors a measure of legal protection and they began to pay monthly tehbazari fee to MCD, project members stopped paying the set hafta to the police and municipal inspectors. This was too big a threat for the local police and municipal officials who felt that this message would soon spread to other markets and vendors in the other bazaars would also start resisting paying bribes. Numerous vendors from other parts of Delhi had already begun coming to MANUSHI offices to plead with us to help them adopt the model of cleanliness and civic responsibility that had become the hallmark of Sewa Nagar. We were pleased with the growing interest in our civic experiment, not realizing that self-regulated and disciplined citizens are a threat to corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and most of all the police.

The very success of the experiment became its enemy. As a result, MANUSHI volunteers and the project vendors came under repeated attacks from the combined might of the local police, the municipal councillor, the MLA and even the MP of the area. To begin with, they all demanded a certain number of stalls in the Sewa Nagar pilot project to be handed over to ‘their men’. Our refusal to comply with this unlawful demand resulted in repeated damage to the new pavements, drains and stalls that had been built to create a model market. MANUSHI volunteers, staff members and the vendors were subjected to threats, intimidation and violence in the expectation that the project would be abandoned. Every second-day goons along with the local police would vandalize the stalls of vendors who were playing an active role in the success of the project. When the terror tactics failed, the mafia approached the High Court for a stay order using false allegations. The High Court refused to grant a stay (Writ Petition No: 2334-2336 was filed by Dharam Singh v/s MCD and others, of 2005 Delhi High Court) but that only made the mafia dons more desperate. They were determined to browbeat us through outright violence and soul-destroying harassment so that out of sheer fatigue, we would abandon the project. On numerous occasions, the construction workers involved in the making of new infrastructure were roughed up and taken to the police station. Our architect and contractor were ordered to stop ‘illegal constructions’ or face police action. The goons regularly looted the stalls of the leading vendors and the police would come to evict them despite the clear written orders of the Municipal Commissioner that pilot project vendors should not be harassed or evicted because the pilot project had the sanction of the Supreme Court.  

On 15 December 2004, the situation became explosive. A gang of goons pitched a big tent in the middle of the Sewa Nagar market and declared that their dharna (a sit-down protest) against the pilot project would be indefinite. They also employed physical violence to stop the construction of new pavements. For eight to ten hours every day, using loudspeakers, they hurled abuses at MANUSHI workers and threatened vendors as a way of pressuring them to withdraw from the project. They even formed a bogus ‘Residents Welfare Association’ to bolster their court case by arguing that MANUSHI had illegally encroached on public land and that our pilot project was an inconvenience to the local residents. Some of these gangsters recruited to the dharna had long criminal records and were undergoing trials for serious offences, including murder, kidnapping, sexual assault and fraud. Even the municipal councillor of the area, the man behind the attacks against us, had 45 criminal cases against him. Despite this, he became an MLA on a Congress party ticket in the next election. These criminal elements attach themselves to whichever party is in power. Both the Congress Party as well as the BJP lent them willing support because such elements come in handy for vote mobilization at the time of elections. This political backing gives such anti-social elements enormous clout with the police.

Fortunately, hardly any vendor from the pilot project area fell prey to their machinations. Unable to break the unity and resilience of the project members through violence and threats of the local mafia, the mafia again approached the High Court of Delhi in January 2005 to have the project declared illegal. The High Court refused for a second time to grant a stay order (Dharam Singh v/s MCD and others: Petition 227, Delhi High Court) but the local gang continued to stall the construction work through the use of harassment and violence. The Station House Officer (SHO)  of the Kotla Police Station gave full support to their criminal activities even while he sweet-talked us into believing his heart was with us. Many vendors had their stalls forcibly removed and goods confiscated. Even though MANUSHI submitted compelling evidence of their criminal activities and exposed the past record of this gang to the High Court, no action was ordered against this gang by the Court. At the same time, the Court gave MANUSHI permission to proceed with the project. This meek surrender of the Indian courts before anti-social elements, especially if they enjoy political patronage, has played a big role in criminalizing our polity and economy.

The Broom Goddess Takes Avatar: The Delhi High Court’s green signal to the pilot project did not deter the police or local politicians from continuing with daily violence on the vendors, as well as routine acts of vandalism and harassment against members in charge of the pilot project. Consequently, the project members began to get demoralised.

We all wondered whether the upgraded pavements, stalls and beautification of the park and the plaza around it would be sustainable in order to make the Sewa Nagar market visibly different, more functional and attractive than the other Delhi markets?

Originally it was planned that Devi Swachhnarayani would take abode in Sewa Nagar only after a proper temple had been built for her as part of the new infrastructure being created for the model market. When things became unmanageable, we decided it was time to request the Goddess to prepone her arrival. On 12 March 2005, amidst great fanfare, Ma Swachhnarayani took avatar in Sewa Nagar. The entire market had been decked out in her honour. Apart from project members, vendors from the neighbouring market along with several local residents gathered to receive her. They sang and danced to the beat of drums to celebrate the coming of Ma Swachhnarayani. 

The powers and attributes of our ten-armed Devi: Our ten armed Devi carries a unique “weapon” in each hand. The novelty of those “weapons” did cause amazement but she was lovingly accepted as spontaneously as our ritual of Broom Worship. Since everyone saw the need for additional attributes and powers required to meet contemporary challenges:

  • The Jhadu (Broom) is the main identity marker of our Devi to symbolize our respect for cleanliness of the physical environment as well as our resolve to cleanse the government machinery of corruption and tyranny. The Broom also represents the strength that comes from unity. Each stick that constitutes the Broom is by itself weak and can be easily broken into pieces. Alone, it is of little value. However, when the same sticks are tied together for a common purpose, they cannot be broken except by pulling them apart. This gave the message that vendors have a chance of winning their battle only if they stay united.
  • The clock emphasizes the need to respond to the changing times and dismantle all the oppressive colonial regulations and laws that act as instruments of exploitation and tyranny
  • The coin in the palm of the Goddess held in abhay mudra communicates the message that citizens have a right to earn a dignified livelihood without fear, harassment and extortion.
  • The scales of Justice declare our commitment to social justice and careful assessment of the difference between truth and deception.
  • The video camera reminds us and our policymakers that our laws need to take careful account of ground reality. A large part of the success of our campaign for policy and law reform for street vendors was due to our presenting to policymakers video recorded evidence of human rights violations suffered by the vendors.
  • The diya (earthen lamp) symbolizes the power of the Goddesses to dispel darkness and bring hope for the oppressed.
  • The calculator reminds us to keep honest accounts of our all financial dealings and demand reciprocal financial accountability and transparency from the government.
  • The pen is a symbol of wisdom and learning as well as a reminder that the ‘pen is mightier than any sword’.
  • The conch shell affirms the virtues of purity and acts as a clarion call for self-organization of citizens so that they can become active players in democratizing governance.
  • The stalk of barley symbolizes the multiplication of wealth as well as the spread of the message of the Broom Goddess. Just as one seed can produce an unlimited number of grains, we hoped that this modest initiative would become the harbinger for many more efforts to strengthen the rights of citizens.
  • The Lotus Flower on which the Goddess stands conveys the message that just as the lotus plant brings forth incredible beauty despite growing in grimy waters, so also we can create beauty and prosperity through our endeavours despite being trapped in squalor and poverty by government agencies.

While our Devi has Durga-like ability to battle tyrants, none of the weapons and symbols associated with her has violent overtones. While the foremost symbol of Swachhnarayani is the Broom representing her creative energy to cleanse wrongdoing, she is as much the goddess of self-discipline – the power of the individual as a member of a group to create order and withstand chaos.

The impact of Swachhnarayani’s presence was far more dramatic than we had anticipated. Not only did She energize the members of the pilot project but also acted as a live link between the vendors and local residents who expressed solidarity with our reforms by offering the Goddess floral and other gifts. Some even brought special ornaments and attires for her. They also began to join in the evening aarti (prayers). Most important of all, she struck a measure of fear in the hearts of our tormentors. Starting with the SHO of the local police station and the beat constables, they all came and paid homage to the goddess without our asking. The best was when those sitting on dharna against us for over two months, sent a message about whether we would let them also come and offer their prayer to our Goddess. We welcomed everyone, including our tormentors, because we hoped that such participation might start the process of reconciliation. The very presence of the Goddess managed to bring a measure of calm into the area. The disruptive activities did not cease altogether but there was less hostility and so the work of completing the new infrastructure could finally recommence with speed.

Within a year of her coming, the project area had been transformed from a slummy hawker market to one of the most colourful and orderly markets in the country. Until our project, this market with a heavy footfall market didn’t even have a public toilet. So, even vendors who spend 10-12 hours a day on their stalls had to use nearby parks, wasted land by the side of the railway track passing through the area. if they needed to answer the call of nature. We built a shining bright toilet block with vendors’ contribution as an essential part of the cleanliness drive.  Lo and Behold, the head of the ‘United Nations Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor’ made a surprise visit to the project and commissioned a documentary film to be made on the Sewa Nagar experiment advocating it as an international role model for empowering the self-employed urban poor.

New strategies of sabotage and takeover of new assets: However, the beautification of the area and the up-gradation of the civic infrastructure produced many unanticipated consequences. As long as vendors were operating from “illegally” occupied spaces, the bribes they paid to those who claimed “ownership” of the public space ranged from Rs 500 to Rs 1000 per month and the sale price of those stalls ranged from Rs 80,000 to about 1.25 lakhs. But as the stalls and the market began to look glamorous, the market price of the stalls shot up dramatically ranging from Rs 5 lakhs to 20 lakhs in 2007.  This price kept increasing every year.

Thus, the 158 stalls, the two large park plazas, a big toilet block and a small temple for Devi Swachhnarayani in white marble represented assets worth several crores. Neither the local mafia, nor the Municipal Councilor, nor for that matter the MLA (Member of Delhi State Assembly), Member of Parliament of that area or the local police could stomach the idea of not having a share in this newly created wealth.

Unable to grab stalls through violence or blackmail, the local mafia developed a new strategy.  At that time, street vendors did not have access to loans from the public sector or private banks.  Due to the absence of credit facilities, many vendors would borrow money from the local mafia when in dire need. This is common all over India. Even when they paid hefty monthly instalments, the debt kept mounting because the deviously calculated interest rate comes no less than 120 per cent per annum. The money lending mafia began to surreptitiously take over the stalls of some of the indebted vendors by making them sign off their rights on Rs 100 denomination stamp paper. When these illegal transfers of stalls came to the knowledge of MANUSHI, we urged the Deputy Commissioner of Central Zone to seal the stalls, which had been ‘purchased’ illegally from vulnerable project members. This was a necessary step since the Agreement signed on oath by each vendor stated clearly that they could neither sell nor rent out those stalls. Therefore, on 4 January 2007 eleven stalls were sealed by the Municipal Corporation, Central Zone. This action aimed at undermining the local mafia led to an unrelenting war against MANUSHI endangering our very lives.

From March 2007 onwards, vendors involved in the project and MANUSHI volunteers in-charge of administering the new market and collecting tehbazari fee for the MCD began to face life-threatening forms of violence. My video camera was a special target of attack.  Three of my cameras were snatched from me with varying degrees of physical violence on three different occasions. On one occasion, one of the tempo (motorized three-wheeler mini truck) owners who is a leading member of the local mafia tried to run me over with his speeding vehicle while I was taking pictures of a large room he and his brothers had illegally constructed in the public park. I narrowly escaped being crushed under his tempo because two vendors screamed to warn me and I managed to jump on the high pavement barely three seconds before the tempo hit me. 

The next lethal attack came on 30 April 2007 when the four brothers of the Basoya family who were leading members of the mafia and run several illegal businesses– including drug peddling, manufacturing pornographic CDs and selling illegally mined underground water and illegally tapped electricity, as well as operating a fleet of tempos from an illegal stand in Sewa Nagar– came and pounced upon a MANUSHI volunteer, Rita Sharma, snatched her gold chain as well as the tehbazari money she had collected and started beating her up.  The project members who came to save her were also thrashed with hockey sticks. The Basoya brothers had a mob of 25-30 persons with them.  Rita and the leading vendors were told if they dared enter the market again, they would be eliminated. The local police station not only refused to register an FIR (First Information Report)  but also registered a false counter case that our members had tried to murder one of the local drug addicts who went to the hospital at their behest with superficial self-inflicted injuries.

This set the tone for implicating us in a string of false criminal cases.  For example, on one of my visits to Sewa Nagar, I was mobbed and beaten by a group of women from the family of Basoya gangsters but they lodged a false counter case that I tried to run them over with my car. On another occasion, they threw huge stones aimed at my skull while I was about to get into my car. They narrowly missed their aim and damaged my car instead of my head because our members who had been watching the scene unfold, pushed me aside in the nick of time. 

By then, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had also started taking an interest in our agenda of economic reforms for India's self-employed poor. Therefore the PMO under Manmohan Singh also intervened in our favour and ordered the then Lt Governor of Delhi to ensure protection for MANUSHI staff and keep a firm check on the anti-social elements of the area. Despite such high-powered interventions, the politically patronized goons of Sewa Nagar continued to act as overlords of the area because the local police showed no inclination to restrain them.  I was advised not to enter the area without police protection. In any case, a single cop was no match if Basoyas organized 20 to 25 goons to attack me. Moreover, having a policeman with me twenty-four seven, including staying overnight in my small apartment was not very convenient. On 18 December 2007, the Lt Governor of Delhi on the basis of letters sent to him by the PMO as well as the Deputy Commissioner of the area where Sewa Nagar is located, wrote to the Police Commissioner that CCTV cameras should be installed in Sewa Nagar in order to restrain the goons from inflicting violence and instituting false cases against us.  

One of the most murderous attacks took place on 31 December 2007 when I went to hold our regular monthly meeting. While I was taking some photographs of the area to keep photographic evidence of new developments, women of the Basoya family tried snatching my video camera and tearing my clothes. As I fell down, a gang of 6-7 men and women began kicking and punching me with full might. When MANUSHI staff member Sheeshpal came to my rescue, he was punched beaten up with sticks till he fell down half-conscious.  He suffered a backbone injury which took years to heal. Apart from other injuries, several ligaments of my right arm were torn. It took three years for the arm to heal. Two of the goons tried to break open my car door shouting loud and clear, “let us shove both of them in the car and set it on fire.”  The car door was badly damaged but luckily for us, they could not break it open.  In the meantime, someone had called the police and they rescued us. That day both Sheeshpal and I narrowly escaped being burnt to death.

The gang followed us to the police station and threatened me with murder and gang rape right in front of the Station House Officer (SHO). But the SHO did not book them for riotous behaviour.  After taking my complaint, the SHO sent me for a medico-legal examination. To our horror, we found that the matriarch of the Basoya gang who initiated the attack had come to the hospital with self-inflicted injuries after filing a false complaint with the Kotla police station that Sheeshpal and I had tried to kill her by running my car over her. This had become a standard pattern. Every time any of us faced a murderous attack, the gangsters would prop up some bogus victim who would file a false case against us to counterblast our genuine complaint.

Whenever I visited the market, even if they did not attack me physically, one or two of them would lodge a complaint that I had come to threaten them with my goondas and demanded “protection money.”  In addition to the “attempt to murder” charge, they filed a string of false complaints accusing me of fraud, extortion, impersonation, cheating and much else. Since the police knew those charges to be bizarre beyond belief, they refrained from converting them into FIRs. The mafia’s game plan was clear: make it so hazardous and humiliating for us to enter the market that we would give up the project.

Counter blasting genuine complaints with fake cases is a common strategy used by criminals in India with the connivance of the police. This misleads judges into treating such a case as one of two parties in conflict instead of innocents vs criminals. Therefore, judges invariably ask the two sides to “compromise” and settle the matter through negotiations. We too were advised by the High Court to “compromise” with the mafia, but I told the judges in open court that asking law-abiding citizens to compromise with criminal elements amounts to an open admission that courts are incompetent to deliver justice and the citizens better learn to live under goonda raj. After this attack, Lt Governor on his own initiative provided me police protection for over eighteen months, that did not restrain the Kotla police station from assisting the mafia elements from registering many more false complaints against us and subjecting project members to violence.

Since the Swachhnarayani temple had become an emotional centre point for the project, they tried to grab control of the small temple housing the Broom Goddess by installing murtis of Hanuman in the precincts. When that was foiled, they placed murtis of Lord Hanuman and Ma Durga right next to the Toilet Block naming it Pracheen (ancient) Hanuman Mandir. This was a grotesque of illegally occupying Toilet Block and the adjacent park plaza so that they could set up new businesses there plus use the place for their booze parties, hosting shows of pornographic films and bringing incall girls. Furthermore, they tried to instigate a communal riot in order to break the unity of vendors so that they could oust MANUSHI and take over the entire area. Among the many tricks they used was to instigate the Imam of a neighbouring mosque and tell him that MANUSHI was making Muslim vendors go against their religion by worshipping the Broom.  Fortunately, some of our key local mobilizers for market reform were Muslims.  They had taken a leading role in establishing the sacredness of Broom worship and making the mandir a popular hub for local residents. We left it to them to deal with the Imam.

When Broom worship failed to escalate into a Hindu-Muslim conflict, the gangsters then filed complaints with the police as well as with senior politicians and bureaucrats that MANUSHI should be banned from the area since the organization was “hurting Hindu sentiments” by promoting the worship of an impure object like the Broom, not fit for being kept in any temple. They alleged that by creating “imaginary” goddesses we were insulting the “real” Hindu goddesses. Fortunately, none of the higher-ups took their complaints seriously.  Most of the Muslim vendors continued taking the lead in worshipping the Broom goddess and even celebrating Navaratras with full fanfare.  They insisted that such worship is nothing new for them.  In their respective villages, Hindus and Muslims jointly celebrated all festivals. However, this is fast changing in recent years thanks to the growing stronghold of Wahabi Islam in India.

With so much violence and a string of false cases filed against us, administering the pilot project for civic discipline became impossible. MANUSHI volunteers could not enter the area without risking their very lives. The police and local goons collaborated in bringing numerous vendors from outside into our project area as a strategy to collect more and more protection money plus break civic discipline. The Cleaning Brigade was also beaten out of the area indicating clearly that the police and the politicians had acquired a vested interest in promoting chaos and squalor because they wanted to strengthen the negative stereotype regarding vendors so that influential sections of population view vendors as a nuisance and support clearance operations as a necessary and legitimate action.

By 2009, it became clear that holding on to the management of Sewa Nagar as a model market was neither viable nor required. Therefore, MANUSHI withdrew its active involvement from that project.

Does it mean our Goddess failed to protect us? Far from it! 

  • Sewa Nagar Model Vendor Market demonstrated to the national and global audience that the municipal agencies, police and corrupt politicians deliberately create civic chaos in order to instigate citizens against the presence of vendors. This hostility in turn enables them to keep vendors insecure and trapped in a web of illegality so that they can survive only by paying hefty bribes. In short, the daily war waged against vendors by government agencies, not just in India but also in many “developed” countries of the world prevents the vendors from moving out of poverty.
  • Mr. Rakesh Mehta, the officer who in his tenure as the Municipal Commissioner of Delhi, had made it possible for the Sewa Nagar project to get the sanction of the Supreme Court of India, took charge as the Chief Secretary of Delhi in November 2007. At that time, MANUSHI was being implicated in numerous false cases. It was his honest report to the Lt Governor that acted as a protective shield for us.
  • We had simultaneously created another model cluster for vendors for the city administration in a leading commercial complex which got protection from the High Court of Delhi as well as the Supreme Court of India. This proved more successful than Sewa Nagar because this market is in the midst of an elite commercial complex. By contrast, Sewa Nagar was in a working-class neighbourhood in the proximity of a degraded urban village where goonda elements had a stronghold. Their kinship and caste solidarity made them a formidable force since politicians woo them as “leaders” of their community’s vote bank;
  • Our work received international endorsement without us even asking for attention. The UN Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor chose Sewa Nagar as a role model worth emulating globally and even made a documentary film on the spirit behind the project. This endorsement came without any of us ever approaching the Commission to look at our work or lend it support;
  • The making and unmaking of the project demonstrated to all concerned, especially the officialdom, that it is eminently possible to enforce civic discipline among vendors and have vibrant, colourful hawker markets if only the administration has the political will to do so.  It has exposed the role of the police, the MCD staff and our elected representatives in promoting civic chaos very graphically. Therefore, despite the breakdown and collapse of this pilot project, we have been vindicated forcefully.
  • The Sewa Nagar experiment motivated a number of upright bureaucrats to try similar experiments in different states of India. This was made possible because for years on end I was invited to lecture on the challenges in implementing the National Policy for Street Vendors at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy for Administration in Mussoorie which trains new recruits to Indian Administrative Service in addition to bringing senior officers for refresher courses.
  • Administering the pilot project in a highly criminalized neighbourhood was consuming too much of our energy and made it impossible for us to keep our other important activities going.  Among other things, the print edition of Manushi Journal had to be suspended. I feel grateful that the Goddess gave us the wisdom not to make Sewa Nagar into a be-all–and–end–all issue. Had we persisted in battling the murderous mafia in Sewa Nagar, our energies would have dissipated without any positive outcome. The Goddess freed our energies by suggesting that we move on to winning bigger battles; Leaving the pilot project not only released our energy for many more important issues but even as far as street vendors are concerned, we have been able to focus on policy and law reform to benefit all vendors rather than get drowned or killed in the process of administering a single project in Sewa Nagar.
  • Finally, the fact that we are still alive and continuing with the battle for law reforms for all the vendors proves that we enjoy Her protection. The police did not dare arrest and throw any of us in jail even though they assisted the mafia in destroying the market thus, proving their complicity in the crime.

MANUSHI’s involvement in new national legislation for street vendors and rickshaw pullers:

  • Even while the Sewa Nagar experiment was collapsing, the Secretary Ministry for Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation, Dr Harjit Singh Anand, invited me to draft national legislation for the protection of street vendors in India. The law I drafted provided the basic template for the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014. The Bill drafted by me laid down that there would be no quota to limit the number of vendors in the City and the well-planned hawking zones should be created in every part of the City (barring high-security zones) in sync with the population size of the area. It mandates the setting up of a Street Vendor Protection Authority to institutionalize transparent, efficient and time-bound mechanisms for registering vendors and providing protection from harassment, beatings, confiscations of goods, along with providing vending spaces in duly designated hawking zones with the requisite civic structure in well-planned hawking zones—including water, sanitation, neat pavements et al. in the City. It also mandated the civic agencies to carry out periodic photo census of the vendors to have verifiable data on the actual numbers in the city, so that civic planning for hawker markets is in tune with ground reality. Some of the key provisions in my draft were unfortunately dropped. But despite this, the new legislation was a historic step in providing legal legitimacy to the occupation of street vending and the government to provide due to space for hawking zones in every urban centre throughout India.
  • After becoming chief secretary of Delhi State Government, Mr. Mehta set up a Task Force for drafting a new vendor friendly law for Delhi. Even though a national law for vendors was in the making, Mr. Mehta recognized the need for a state law because the regulation of street vending is the responsibility of municipal agencies which are under the control of state governments. Once again MANUSHI was asked to draft that law.
  • During this period, we won far bigger battles with regard to cycle rickshaw policy. First, in a PIL filed by MANUSHI, the Delhi High Court accepted all of our arguments in favour of promoting non-motorized vehicles, and in a historic judgement (Manushi Sangthan, Delhi vs Govt. Of Delhi & Ors. on 10 February 2010) delivered in February 2010, declared the existing cycle rickshaw policy unconstitutional. Mr Mehta, as chief secretary, was asked by the High Court to head a Task Force for making a new non-discriminatory policy for cycle rickshaws in a manner that includes them as an integral part of the vehicular traffic in Delhi. I was a lead member of this Task Force and was asked to draft new legislation for Non-Motorized Vehicles (NMV). The High Court accepted the recommendations of this Task Force and began monitoring the creation of NMV lanes in the city. Most important of all, the entire Redevelopment Plan of Chandni Chowk in the historic old city of Delhi– declaring the area as a motor vehicle-free zone with only NMVs allowed to ply there—is an offshoot of our PIL for promoting non-polluting, ecologically friendly non-motorized vehicles for short-distance commutes.

Thus, the blessings of Devi Swachhnarayani led to much bigger policy and law changes for street vendors and cycle rickshaw pullers all over India even though Sewa Nagar did not survive as a model market.

Finally, the Broom Goddess has given us the required patience and resilience not to expect instant results, not to get demoralized when the going gets tough, to accept temporary defeats with equanimity and not let victories give us an exaggerated sense of achievement. We are fighting this battle with the awareness that it is part of a much larger battle to ensure that the agenda of liberalization and economic reforms do not stay limited to the tiny minority of our population that is connected to the corporate sector and that this agenda extends to the 90 per cent of India’s population that earns its living in the unorganized/ self-organized sectors of our economy.

Aarti of Manushi Swachhnarayani: The Broom Wielding Goddess of Good Governance & Self Respecting Citizens


Lyrics and translation:


जय जय स्वच्छ नारायणी, जय जय स्वच्छ नारायणी,
जन जन की सुखदायिनी। जन जन की सुखदायिनी।
एक हाथ में झाडू रखती, भ्रष्टाचार बुहारनी।।
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
Jai Jai Swachhnarayani, jai jai Swachhnarayani
She takes care of the well being of all.
Wielding a broom in her hand, She cleanses away corruption
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era.

सींक-सींक मिल शक्ति बढ़ती,
एक सींक कुछ नहिं कर सकती।
रहो एक जुट हमें सिखाती, माता बुद्धि दायिनी।।
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
East stick that constitutes the broom is by itself weak
When the same sticks are tied together they become strong’
Our Mother, who bestows wisdom,
teaches us to stay united for our common cause.
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era

एक हाथ में लिये कैमरा,
इसमें सबका कर्म है भरा
अफसर नौकर कोई न छूटे,
सबका रखती लेखा-जोखा।
यथायोग्य फलदायिनी
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
She carries a video camera in one of her hands,
She keeps track of the doings of each of us.
Neither high officers nor humble servants escape her careful scrutiny.
Our Mother rewards each of us as per our doing.
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era

एक हाथ में घड़ी सुहाती,
चलो वक्त के साथ बताती।
समय से बदलो कानूनो को
कहे काल चक्र स्वामिनी।।
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
One of her hands is adorned with a watch,
It reminds us to move with the march of time,
Change our laws as per the changing times,
Says the Swamini of Kaalchakra (The Deity of Changing Epochs)
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era

एक हाथ में लिये रूपैया।
कहती हमको अपनी मैया,
सच्चाई से करो कमाई
इज्ज़त के संग जीना भैया।
निर्भय जीना हमें सिखाए।
निर्भय मुद्रा धारिणी।।
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
With a coin placed in one hand (held in abhaya mudra)
Our Mother tells us to earn our living through honest means.
She teaches us to aspire for a life of dignity.
She with her hand in nirbhay mudra, teaches us to live fearlessly,
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era.

एक हाथ माता के दीपक
अंधकार का बने निवारक
दीन दुखी की सदा सहायक
माँ आशा संचारिणी।
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
One hand of our Mother carries an earthen lamp
Our Mother, the Dispeller of darkness,
Forever protecting the weak and vulnerable,
Our Mother, the Giver of hope.
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era.

कैलकुलेटर एक हाथ में
बही खाता भी उसके साथ में।
जनता और सरकार का लेखा।
साफ-साफ है इसके हाथ में
पारदर्शिता धारिणी।
माँ पारदर्शिता धारिणी।।
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
She carries a Calculator in one hand along with an account book.
She holds in her palm the accounts of governments as well as each one of us.
She is the epitome of transparency
Our Mother, the epitome the transparency.
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era.

कहे तराजू माँ के हाथ
न्याय की राह चलो इक साथ
हम भी अपने काम को तोलें, हमें बताती अपनी मात
नीति सत्य की वादिनी, माँ नीति सत्य की वादिनी।
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
The weighing balance in one of the hands of our Mother
Reminds us to work together to achieve justice.
Our Mother urges us to weigh our own actions carefully
The message of truth and righteousness emanates from her music.
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era.

एक हाथ जो लिये कलम है,
ज्ञान शक्ति का ये परचम है।
लेखनी है तलवार से बढ़कर।
हम सबका विश्वास अटल है।
है माँ ज्ञान प्रदायिनी,
माँ है ज्ञान प्रदायिनी
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
She carries a Pen in one hand -a symbol of knowledge based power
We have unflinching faith that the Pen is mightier than any sword.
Our Mother is the Bestower of Gyan (knowledge)
She is the bestower of Wisdom.
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era.

शंख बिराजे माँ के हाथ गूजें
इसमें साहस का नाद
सदा गूंजती रहती इसमें।
लोकतंत्र की रागिनी।।
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
A Conch sits royally in our Mother’s hands,
It echoes her clarion call for courage in struggle,
The melody of people’s power emanates incessantly from this conch.
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era.

एक हाथ में जौं की बाली।
इसमें है मेहनत की लाली।
जो बीजो वो फल पाओगे
मेहनत न जाए कभी भी खाली।
यथा योग्य फल दायिनी, यथा योग्य फल दायिनी
आई है तो जुल्म मिटायेगी, यह तो नया जमाना लायेगी।
There is a stalk of barley in one of her hands.
It symbolizes the glow of hard honest labour.
You will reap as you sow’
Hard work never goes to waste.
Our mother rewards each of us as per our endeavours.
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era.

मां बिराजे बीच कमल,
कहे, मेहनत से बनो सफल।
भ्रष्टाचार के कीचड़ से, खुद को बचाओ तुम हर पल।।
सुन्दर समाज का हो सृजन, गर अन्याय को करो दफ़न।।
She stands upon a lotus flower
It symbolizes honestly-earned wealth,
She urges us to save ourselves from the cesspool of corruption
She urges us to create a world which has no place for injustice.
Now that She has arrived, She will wipe out tyranny, She will usher in a new era.

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