As she dragged her pushcart with a pile of unsold fruits from the Kasturba Nagar market back to her house at the end of the day, street vendor Vijaylaxmi felt uneasy about her future. Her hopes, like that of many other women street vendors in the market, of restarting their business and resuming their livelihoods after the COVID-19 pandemic seemed grim.
The largest impact of the pandemic in India has been seen on the population involved in informal labour, such as street vendors. According to the ILO, COVID-19’s impact on the informal sector is equivalent to 195 million jobs lost. Another report by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation mentioned that there are around 10 million street vendors in India. 1.2 million of the country’s street vendors are women, according to the Periodic Survey of India (2017-18). During calamities such as the pandemic, for instance, it is seen that the burden on women increases way more substantially because of gender disparities. Women who operate as street vendors are triply marginalised because of their gender, caste and class status. They face the wrath of these different layers of discrimination, in addition to the atrocities of the pandemic itself. Various reports recently have shown that women street vendors in different parts of the country faced added atrocities.
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What lockdown and pandemic meant for women street vendors
In the Kasturba Nagar market of Chennai, many women street vendors sell fruits, vegetables and flowers. Most of these women are the sole breadwinners of their families. Already facing hardships, these vendors after the pandemic are facing added concerns of lower sales and this has become a daily struggle for survival.
“I used to earn INR 5000 before the pandemic but now it’s just INR 2000-3000 per day….I have been financially shattered.” said 46-year-old Vijaylaxmi, who is a fruit seller. She is the sole breadwinner of her family of three as her husband is a person with mental disability. She drags her pushcart stacked with fruits to the market and stays there till 10 pm. “I have severe pain in my knees because of this. Some nights it pains a lot, I don’t feel like going to the market the next day but then I think of my family, take a tablet, apply some balm and then start again tomorrow,” she said.
61-year-old Gauri’s story is no different from Vijaylaxmi’s. She sits on a footpath in the market with a table selling gajras or jasmine flower bunches. After the pandemic, her earning has decreased to around INR 200-500 per day. Her husband has passed away, leaving Gauri and her son as the only earning members for a family of six. After the pandemic, due to the lockdown and decrease in sales, she faced a financial crisis. To overcome this, she started doing other small jobs like making rangolis to muster enough daily income. “I sometimes go to bed with an empty stomach. How can I let my two grandchildren do the same? That’s why even at this age I have to work”. she said.
Another flower-seller Shanti sat just outside the Ishta Siddhi Vinayakar Temple with her pushcart. Before the pandemic, she used to earn around INR 1000-1500 per day now it has reduced drastically to INR 200-300 per day. She had to sell her jewellery during the pandemic to manage expenses. She further added, “The earning has decreased, a lot of my time goes travelling, I feel exhausted but if I think of taking even one day’s break then what will my family eat?”
We tried to get in touch with Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, I.A.S., Regional Deputy Commissioner of Greater Chennai Corporation (South) Adyar Region, but he wasn’t available for a comment. For most of these women in the Kasturba Nagar market, surviving the pandemic was a tough task. The police officials patrolling in the market have also witnessed their struggle and often, been a source of help. “The market has many women street vendors, their numbers are more than the men in the market and we make sure that everyone and all these women stay safe. There haven’t been any complaints in regards to safety by any street vendor so far.” said R. Mohanram, Sub Inspector patrolling J2 Adyar Police station.
“There were cases of a few vendors not getting the government schemes benefits because they did not have the GCC issued vending cards, we helped them with the process,” he added.
Different areas, similar stories
Just like the Kasturbah Nagar market in Chennai, Semiliguda Block in Koraput, Odisha is also predominantly populated by women sellers. A study found out that most of the vendors in the market are women and are also the sole breadwinners of their family. In the market, these women sell daily goods and their livelihood revolves around their income from daily sales. Coming to work everyday is a necessity for these women for survival.
Another recent study conducted by the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) and Janpahal in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal found similar results. A prominent issue that most women street vendors faced during lockdown was the lack of mobility. In most of the markets, women street vendors are often found with fixed stalls or pushcarts. Unlike male vendors, they do not go around pushing their carts and selling the goods. Instead they get their push carts everyday to one spot in the market and sell items from there. The reason for this has been the societal stigma around women’s mobility and the constant threat of sexual harassment. One of the respondents in the ISST and Janpahal study said, “Do you think as a woman I can go around selling vegetables on the cart? Mobility is not possible for a woman.”
This bias and fear has made surviving lockdown and the after-effects of the pandemic even tougher for women.
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It’s the need of the hour to recognise the women who work in markets despite adverse conditions. Looking at the issue from a feminist perspective is important. Women street vendors, the male-female ratios of the seller population, and creating a channel for these women street vendors is of vital importance as they re-adapt and re-adjust to the new norms of the pandemic by following safety protocols.
Featured image source: Firstpost