July 07, 2024

WB: Trinamool's Hawker Eviction Drive

Subinoy Moulik

A Desperate Move with Dire Consequences

THE Trinamool Congress's recent Lok Sabha election results, despite gains, revealed a 2.25 per cent drop in vote share compared to 2021 assembly polls, particularly a sharp loss of support among the urban middle class and the poor. This decline has triggered a desperate scramble to regain lost ground. In a move aimed at appeasing the middle class and intimidating the urban poor, Mamata Banerjee's government launched surprise hawker eviction drives across the state on June 25. Police and municipal authorities bulldozed makeshift stalls, leaving hawkers helpless as their livelihoods were destroyed. This aggressive operation against "encroachments" exposed the Trinamool Congress's willingness to sacrifice the vulnerable for political gain. The resulting public backlash, however, serves as a stark reminder that such heavy-handed tactics shall backfire, further eroding trust in the ruling party.

On June 24, just 20 days after the Lok Sabha results, Mamata Banerjee chaired an administrative meeting at Nabanna, the state secretariat, where she ordered the eviction drive, criticising party colleagues and authorities for allowing sidewalk and pathway ‘encroachments’. The very next day, the entire administration sprang into action, evicting hawkers and petty traders operating on the pavements. This frenzy continued for three consecutive days – bulldozers and JCB machines were used to tear down ramshackle stalls, drawing comparisons to similar drives in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Street hawking expanded in Kolkata following the city’s economic decline after independence and partition. The influx of refugees from East Bengal after Partition led to a tremendous increase in hawkers. Gradually, hawking has become a prominent feature in all major cities and towns of the state. The number of hawkers has increased sharply in the last decade due to a lack of new industries and job opportunities in West Bengal. Covid-19 and lockdowns caused massive job and income losses, forcing many to take up hawking for livelihood. The chief minister herself advised the unemployed to sell potato fritters to make a living! In short, the root of the hawker problem lies in the lack of opportunities in the formal sector, forcing many to turn to this mode of self-employment in the informal sector.  


The government’s abrupt heavy-handed approach did not go unchallenged. Public outrage was swift and widespread. In Birbhum district, led by the CPI(M) councillor from Rampurhat municipality, Sanjib Mallick, people stood in front of JCBs, and resistance also flared up in Kolkata's Rajabazar. In some other places, the bulldozers had to retreat as protests escalated. Mamata Banerjee was forced to announce a temporary ceasefire, suspending the eviction drive for a month. However, evictions continued in several places despite the announcement. The local administration in Bolpur, Birbhum even utilised central forces deployed for the polls to assist in the crackdown.

Hawker association leaders have a lurking suspicion that there is another hidden agenda behind this hawker eviction drive apart from regaining urban votes. If the sidewalks and other places can be freed from hawkers, shopping in big stores or malls can become a compulsion. As a result, corporate profits will be ensured. This would, in turn, benefit the Trinamool Congress, as these corporates are the biggest fundraisers for Trinamool Congress. It is pertinent to mention that as per data shared by the State Bank of India, Trinamool received Rs 1,610 crores through electoral bonds from 211 donors between April 12, 2019 and January 24, 2024.

Mamata Banerjee's government has been politicking the hawker issue since the beginning. The Street Vendors Act 2014, enacted during the UPA II government, came into effect on March 5, 2014, across the country except in Jammu and Kashmir. Although this act cannot resolve all aspects of the hawker problem, it has many positive aspects. If implemented, it would protect the right of common people to walk on footpaths and allow hawkers to operate in accordance with the rules. However, in the last ten years, the Trinamool government has failed to implement the act or even acknowledge its existence, leaving hawkers vulnerable to exploitation.

In order to implement that act in the state, it was necessary to make appropriate rules. In September 2018, the urban development department of the Trinamool government called a meeting of hawker representatives at the Rotunda in Writers' Buildings, the former state secretariat. There, the departmental secretary read out a draft of the rules, a copy of which was not given to the hawker representatives. The government claimed that these rules had nothing to do with the central law. It was a completely independent initiative of the state government. This claim was clearly a travesty of truth.

In 2019, the state government gazetted these rules. It was found that in at least five cases, these rules were in flagrant violation of the central Act. Apart from written protest to the state government, protest rallies were held by the hawker unions. When it was found that the state government was not willing to accept the democratic voice in any way, the hawker unions led by the CITU filed a case in the High Court. On March 6, 2020 the High Court annulled these rules. Meanwhile, Covid and lockdown came. In September 2020, the state government filed an affidavit in the High Court requesting an opportunity to make its statement. In March 2021, the court recalled its earlier order and asked the government to submit an affidavit. Till date the government has not been able to submit that affidavit. However, the rules cancelled by the High Court still remain uploaded on the government's website, although the whole matter is placed sub judice.


To put it simply, to bring about a practical solution to the hawker problem, Mamata Banerjee's government should immediately implement the Street Vendors Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act, 2014 based on discussions with all stakeholders.  Before taking any drastic action there should be threadbare discussion, sufficient time needs to be given and arrangements should be made for proper rehabilitation. However, the focus seems to be on political manoeuvring rather than constructive solutions. That the TMC is not the least sincere in finding solutions is clear from the fact that in spite of having a considerable presence among the hawkers, CITU is not represented in the hawker affairs committee of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the agency which is mainly leading this hawker eviction drive.

Meanwhile, a game of politics of division has been subtly started by the government. It is said that the evicted hawkers are not residents of the state. It is not at all difficult to imagine what the repercussions of this provincialism might be. On the other hand, the BJP in its characteristic manner is busy complaining that only Hindu hawkers are being evicted selectively. In this way, they are trying to give a communal colour to the anti-poor people action and to divert attention from the basic issues.

Those in the media who are elated by this eviction drive may need to be reminded that at some point Mamata Banerjee even called for a state-wide strike against the displacement of hawkers. Those suffering from short-term memory loss also need to be reminded that chief minister Mamata Banerjee held a meeting of hawkers at Rabindra Sarovar Stadium before the 2015 Kolkata municipal elections. There she made a series of promises in her usual style.  If someone takes the pain to turn over the yellowed pages of those past editions it will come to light that implementing those promises is now one of the main demands of hawkers. Today, in the eyes of Mamata Banerjee's government, that same hawker is an ‘encroacher'. Today, under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee, a monstrous attack is being brought down on hawkers across the state.

CITU West Bengal committee president Subhash Mukherjee and general secretary Anadi Sahu said in a statement, “Unlawful eviction of hawkers is going on across the state without enforcing the central Hawkers Act. This eviction must stop.” CITU directly blamed the chief minister, saying, "Ponds are being filled up, government land, roadside channels  (nayanjuli) are being grabbed and sold by ruling party leaders, illegal/unauthorised construction is going on unabated, felling of trees and destruction of green cover is being carried  out on a massive scale." It is common knowledge that the TMC has established a reign of loot. Illegal sand-coal mining and cattle smuggling have become lucrative businesses. The chief minister has been a silent spectator for so long and her silence has given tacit support to all these activities. No action was taken against anyone. On the contrary, a part of the loot has reached all the leaders and ministers. Now suddenly, by turning Nabanna into TMC headquarters, the chief minister is trying to pretend in front of the media that she is good even though the whole party is bad.

Expressing anger over the plight of the hawkers, CITU stated, "This inhumane threat by the chief minister has caused immense harassment and suffering to the poor hawkers in various districts of the state, including Kolkata. They are being brutally evicted. These despotic actions must stop at once."