Rethinking Street Vending

– This article was originally published by Roopali Bista in the Himalayan Times on the December 16, 2018.

Around the world, people are divided roughly equally on both sides of the axis regarding street vending. In Nepal, street vending is a part of the culture across many communities and towns. They are mostly local traditional markets in many cities which often predate the city itself. Traders from nooks and crannies participate in this marvel.

Attributes like minimal investment requirement, easy set-ups and self-employment make an economic activity for scores of Nepalese people. And from their consumers’ point of view, they make decent quality goods available at cheap prices just on their commute routes, they are an extremely important part of the kitchen culture of average Nepali households. This then means that there is good return (social and economic) in managing these traditional markets efficiently.

Despite being a major growing business and having major role in the economy, these is are also largely informal in nature. Authorities are oblivious of the exact number of vendors in the city and have largely ignored them altogether as exhibited by the lack of any policy framework regarding them. There has been no designated zones or spots for vending despite major cities having a strong street food and street market tradition.Most of the old areas of vending languish in disarray due to lack of maintenance. Apart from a few arbitrary rules, no concrete laws pertaining to street vending exist as of now in Nepal. And these rules vary from area to area and generally does not hold any significance.

Due to this vendors across the country are harassed or evicted from public spaces.

Now that the local bodies have been put in charge of managing local markets, it is their responsibility to come up with favorable laws for the vendors in order to preserve the traditional market and to combat other problems associated with street vending. A number of major issues facing these markets have already been identified by past studies. Taking a stock of these will help the local governments in dissecting the situation and coming up with favourable laws in the days to come.

Registration & Taxation

 There is no framework or a method to register their businesses and therefore tax cannot be collected which gives them the status of being “illegal” making it difficult for them to practice their trade. They incur additional costs when they are not registered, such as having their merchandise confiscated – a risk to which off-street enterprises are not subjected to. Formalizing street vendors and bringing them into the tax net will greatly enhance security for them. They can then practice their trade without the fear of being evicted and harassed. Formalisation will also secure their property rights and give them an access to formal finances. These are indispensable attributes for scaling up of any kind of business. For local governments, the revenues they collect from these vendors can be spent on managing these markets themselves, making them a self-sustaining community enterprise.

Individual and collective rights

One of the major debates surrounds an individual’s right to work and the collective’s right to public space. Many critics of street vending argue that public spaces are considered as a collective good that everyone has the right to enjoy them. Street vending, in this sense becomes a violation of these rights. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has made it exclusive that all humans should be allowed to exercise their economic rights. Also, the Constitution of Federal Nepal guarantees the right to employment to all its citizens, Outlawing Street vending violates the principles of free and open competition in addition to individual rights to work and non-discrimination laws. In addition, street vending enables the working poor to generate jobs for themselves. In the absence of this, they might even resort to criminal activities for their livelihood which in turn only adds the cost of monitoring and disciplining on all members of the society. It thus plays in the benefit of both governments and citizens to allow and manage street vending.

Urban planning and street vending

Some see street vending as a hurdle in the development of a city. In many cities, street vendors experience cycles in which local authorities tolerate, then regulate, and then evict street vendors in accordance with economic trends, election cycles, and other urban management pressures. Instead of this the local government should treat street vending as an integral, permanent feature of the city and include them in the development plans. Many argue that street vending causes problems of pollution and congestion but these problems are caused by poor management of these vendors. Further, allocating a vending zone and proper management of these natural markets could solve this problem.