Street vendors are an essential part of India’s economy, accounting for over US$10 million a day in transactions. But these entrepreneurs often operate at the mercy of local authorities who arbitrarily extort, abuse, and threaten them, seizing their goods and charging them hefty fines. Centre for Civil Society, or CCS, has been a consistent champion for street vendors, securing the passage of the landmark Street Vendors Act in 2014.
But implementation of the law has been fragmented and remains unfinished in states around the country. With sustained research and publicity campaigns on behalf of and in partnership with vendors, Centre for Civil Society has maintained pressure on government officials to protect street vendors’ economic rights. Moreover, CCS’s work to educate vendors about the law is enabling millions to stand up for their rights, ultimately allowing them to earn a livelihood free from the fines and fear that have prevented them from plying their trade in peace.
“The global recognition of [being nominated for] the Templeton Freedom Award is a shot in the arm for the effort being put in by CCS to hold state institutions accountable and to fight for the rights of street vendors to earn a livelihood with dignity, as intended by law,” said Lakshmi Sampath Goyal, chief executive officer of Centre for Civil Society. “The anti-harassment initiative for street vendors is a crucial component of the evidence-based policy reform work CCS does [as we fight] for true liberalization for the poorest of poor Indians in the informal sector and the marginalized communities—those who are often invisible or, as in the case of street vendors, considered a public nuisance rather than being considered micro-entrepreneurs.
Thirty-four million people in India support themselves and their families by working as street vendors. They are known by a variety of local nicknames, but no matter what they are called, they serve as an irreplaceable part of India’s society and economy. Despite their daily US$10 million contribution to the Indian economy, they are often seen as nuisances. Staying in business at the mercy of the police and other local authorities, street vendors had a difficult time getting ahead and escaping poverty. That situation changed significantly in 2014 when Centre for Civil Society—an Atlas Network partner—secured passage of the Street Vendors Act in the Parliament of India.
That law instituted requirements for states to implement clear guidelines under which vendors could do business, ensuring their security, dignity, and freedom from harassment. Unfortunately, many states have dragged their heels on enacting these guidelines, leading to an uneven patchwork of regulatory systems across the country. Centre for Civil Society recognized that their work was not finished in 2014, and they have continued their campaign to ensure that micro-entrepreneurs across the country have the legal protections they need.
Because of the varied implementation of the Street Vendors Act, addressing the problem requires localized solutions. CCS created an overarching strategy to deal with the variety of needs. They continued to focus on effecting policy change at the state level to bring states in line with national law, while also directly engaging with vendors, equipping them with the tools to defend their rights.
At the policy level, Centre for Civil Society has been diligent in tracking states’ progress toward adopting the national reform. Analyzing both legislation and legal cases, they identify points where state legislatures can improve. They also produce periodic policy white papers and research reports on specific issues. This consistent pressure ensures that states continue to improve their attitude toward and legal treatment of street vendors.
The organization also engages directly with legislators, and they have been repeatedly recognized as an authoritative voice on the topic of street vendors. Evidencing the trust government stakeholders put in Centre for Civil Society, they have been invited to both testify to a Parliamentary Standing Committee studying the effectiveness of the Street Vendors Act and draft amendments to the act. They have been nominated as a non-governmental representative for several Town Vending Committees, the local bodies tasked with overseeing issues related to vendors. The Indian government’s think tank also reached out to solicit recommendations on how the government could support vendors during the pandemic, and one of CCS’ suggestions was ultimately implemented.
Centre for Civil Society has also focused on educating street vendors on their legal rights and helping defend them in court. Even where better laws have been adopted, the authorities can prey on ill-informed victims in order to harass them or extract bribes. To counter this, CCS has launched an information campaign. Through WhatsApp groups and YouTube videos, they have reached out to individuals and leaders to spread awareness of their rights and how they can legally defend themselves. This has already helped some vendors stop the police from illegally evicting them. When asserting their rights isn’t enough, CCS provides legal representation free of charge, empowering vendors to effectively push back against fines and eviction.
An important part of making this change last is changing public perceptions. To that end, Centre for Civil Society utilizes the power of the media extensively. They have published several opinion articles, appeared on India’s most popular weekly podcast, held informational meetings with journalists, and engaged directly with students to change their perspectives.
Centre for Civil Society’s work on behalf of street vendors has transformed countless lives by allowing them to actualize their human dignity and right to earn a livelihood. As CCS continues to push for full implementation of the Street Vendors Act, even more Indians will have the opportunity to improve their lives and escape poverty.
About Centre for Civil Society:
The mission of Centre for Civil Society is to advance social change through public policy. Its work in education, livelihood, and policy training promotes choice and accountability across the private and public sectors. It aims to translate policy into practice, and the staff engages with policy and opinion leaders through research, pilot projects, and advocacy.
About Atlas Network:
Atlas Network increases global prosperity by strengthening a network of independent partner organizations that promote individual freedom and are committed to identifying and removing barriers to human flourishing.
About Atlas Network’s Templeton Freedom Award and the additional 2021 finalists:
Awarded since 2004, Atlas Network’s Templeton Freedom Award is named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The award annually honors his legacy by identifying and recognizing the most exceptional and innovative contributions to the understanding of free enterprise and the public policies that encourage prosperity, innovation, and human fulfillment via free competition. The award is generously supported by Templeton Religion Trust and will be presented during Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner on December 14 in Miami, Florida, at loanDepot (Miami Marlins) park. The winning organization will receive a $100,000 prize, and five additional finalists will each receive $20,000 prizes. The finalists for Atlas Network’s 2021 Templeton Freedom Award are:
Centre for Civil Society (New Delhi, India), for their work to secure legal protections for street vendors;