The Genteel
March 7, 2021


Customers checking the wares before buying them at Colaba Causeway.

Mumbai has Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, but it also has Gandhi Market, Hill Road and Colaba Causeway. Many shopping options mean that those who cannot afford a pair of Christian Louboutins aren't necessarily limited to raggedy old shoes. One only needs to go to Hill Road, a street in Mumbai's lively Bandra suburb, to find an attractive pair at less than one-tenth of the price (quality not being a point of comparison, of course). So, the rich buyer is happy, the middle class customer is happy, big brands are happy and street vendors are happy. But what about small shop owners? They clearly aren't happy.

Pretty bangles for sale at Colaba Causeway.

In the '60s and '70s, vendors began selling everything from clothes to accessories on Mumbai's streets. Initially, only a few vendors set up shop along the city's main shopping arteries, but as time passed, their numbers grew and today, there are more vendors than shops. "Ever since these stalls came up, our businesses have begun to suffer," says Mr. Varun, the owner of a small clothing shop on Colaba Causeway, who didn't want to disclose his shop's name.

This is true across the city; Colaba Causeway (in the tourist-friendly, eponymous area), in particular, best highlights the issue. There was a time, less than five years ago, when this street was lined with many small shops. While the shops didn't carry big brand names, their clothes were of good quality and could last a good length of time. Now, one only needs to walk down Causeway to see that things have changed; a mere handful of such shops remain while street vendors have proliferated on the pavement outside of these very shops.

Another shop owner, who is a part of the Colaba Shopkeepers' Association (CSA) but who doesn't wish to be named, says, "There is no guarantee of the goods these vendors sell. Do they even pay Value Added Tax?" he asks, rhetorically. To answer his question, Mr. Hashim, a vendor on Colaba Causeway, explains, "Before we can set up a stall, we have to take a permit from the BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the city's civic governing body]. Only then can we set up our stalls. For those who don't have a permit, the BMC conducts regular checks and confiscates their wares."

However, it would be incorrect to say that the businesses of small shops have been hindered solely by the presence of street vendors. Over the past five odd years, property rates in Mumbai have sky-rocketed and, consequently, so have shop rents. High rents combined with reduced revenues (due to vendors eating into shops' profits) have led to the shut down of several small businesses.

Instead of removing the stalls, these people should be rehabilitated somewhere. Because, if [we] tried to remove [them] forcibly, they would rather lose their lives than lose their means of livelihood.

Nevertheless, the vendors' contributions to this turn of events cannot be discounted. Mr. Ayub Sheikh, a Causeway vendor, however, puts forth a different viewpoint. "Those who prefer branded and better quality goods will continue to buy from the shops, while those who want things at cheaper rates, without worrying too much about brands or quality, will buy from us," he says. Although Mr. Sheikh is optimistic, the shop owners aren't that upbeat, such as the member of the CSA. His displeasure is evident when he says, "These shops are just a way of selling off smuggled goods. Besides, the situation is such that these vendors are now encroaching upon more and more land." 

Several areas in Mumbai have been demarcated as hawking zones, where vendors can set up stalls after purchasing valid permits. To that effect, the stalls aren't illegal. However, over the years, what started out as a means of livelihood for poor Indians, has almost become what the CSA member terms "a kingpin business." Those who already have permits are renting out existing stall space to newcomers, circumventing government procedures. Thus, beyond being a spot to sell wares, the stalls themselves have become a source of income, and this is against the law.

There are many sources of the vendors' massive patronage - students, middle class men and also, very importantly, tourists. Colaba Causeway is a favourite with students. During school and college years, one never seems to have enough money to buy "basic necessities" for a week, let alone buying fancy clothes and accessories. A trip to Causeway, Fashion Street (near the Fort area in South Mumbai), and Bandra's Hill Road and Linking Road is sure to yield fruitful results for these students. "I once bought a pair of shorts, two tops, one pair of flip-flops and a pair of earrings from Bandra Linking Road for only 500 rupees (CAD$10)," says Riddhi Das, a college student whom I met while roaming around Hill Road, talking to vendors. And it's true; one can buy "fancy" tops for as little as 100 rupees (CAD$2) at any of these markets. Shoes in the latest designs can be bought for as little as 200 rupees (CAD$4) and purses and bags start at only 100 rupees (CAD$2). The key here, of course, is bargaining. For those who can't bargain, be warned - you can be royally fleeced here!

Mr. Hashim talks about his stall and his 
rapport with the area's small shop owners.

The Indian buyers, well aware of vendors' tactics, will always bargain hard before they settle on a price for anything. It used to be that foreigners would end up paying five to six times the actual price of a product, unaware of its real value. However, things have changed; so much so that one can often find tourists driving a harder bargain than the Indians! As vendors have become more popular, tourists have become smarter customers. As Mr. Sheikh says, "Earlier, people would bargain a little, and then quickly settle on a price. Now, they bargain endlessly, and we have to put in a lot more effort to make a sale."

As a result, the earning potential of vendors has also changed. The business of street vending is such that profits are never the same on any two days. When asked for a ballpark figure as to how much he makes per day, Mr. Raghu Ram, a Hill Road vendor, says, "There is never a fixed amount that we make on a particular day. Some days are good, some bad." Besides, there are some days where business is positively brilliant due to various external factors. For instance, from February 4 to 12, thousands of people visited the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival which took place in an area close to Colaba Causeway. Similarly, the Bandra Fair drives more customers to Hill Road and Linking Road. "Wedding season, between October and March, is also a time for big sales. Also the months of June and July, when young girls descend by the lot to these areas for pre-college shopping," says Amar Singh, another Hill Road vendor. 

Meanwhile, the small shop owners - the ones who are still braving the odds - are trying to run their businesses in these circumstances. Business has declined massively - by at least 60-65% according to Mr. Varun - and shop owners have formed unions against the illegal encroachment of stalls and are rallying hard to stop their spread. In spite of this, Mr. Hashim says, "The small shop owners aren't bad; at least not the ones here [the area near his stall]. But everyone isn't the same and some do try to cause trouble." Meanwhile, the CSA member, though quite fed up with the stalls and their owners, softens his stance a little to say, "Instead of removing the stalls, these people should be rehabilitated somewhere. Because, if [we] tried to remove [them] forcibly, they would rather lose their lives than lose their means of livelihood." Mr. Varun adds, "We aren't against them; we understand they have mouths to feed as well. But they should be relocated to hawking areas, where they can be made liable to pay taxes."

In a city where there is no dearth of options for the buyer, the seller is constantly struggling to keep afloat and make a living for himself. And although street vendors are not the only reason for small shops shutting down, they are certainly the biggest.



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