Kuppan points to pushcarts lined up along the Marina beach at Foreshore Estate. “These are small shops that can be pushed away. Not so with a sugarcane juice stall,” he says.
The 76-year-old, who had taken to managing such a sugarcane juice stall his mother Ponnammal set up decades ago on the Marina beach, says that he is left relying on it as he cannot do anything else for a livelihood. Since late March, his stall has been shut.
His story echoes along the beachfront.
Muthu P, who has stalls selling refreshments and spring potato on the Marina beach, says that although some have gone on to serve as domestic help or clean fish in the market, some others risk the ire of the police and set up their stalls.
The common thread, however, is that a majority of the street vendors have drowned themselves in debt, says Muthu.
“During the lockdown, they couldn’t help but sell their possessions and jewellery. Some even sold their land of half a ground or a ground. Even I have sold off around 15 sovereigns in my possession,” he adds.
D Subramani, who has been vending chips and groundnuts at Anna Square in the Marina since the 1960s, says, “We didn’t think globally people would be hit like this and we also haven’t lived thinking about tomorrow before.”
Worse, with access to stalls prohibited, they are left to disintegrate and after eight months require expensive repairs.
Enumeration And Compensation
The state government announced COVID-19 relief totaling Rs 3000 since March to all street vendors in Chennai. This amount was disbursed in three instalments of Rs 1000 each to 1076 vendors in the Marina beach.
“The last tranche is yet to reach around 150 of them due to a shortfall in the amount released,” says Sridhar PN, Regional Deputy Commissioner of Chennai Central zone. “The beneficiaries were identified as per the biometric enumeration by the Corporation in 2017.”
But the enumeration process itself is under some controversy.
While associations at the Marina say there are over 2000 vendors on the beach, the Greater Chennai Corporation website identifies 1479 persons directly associated with vending in the Marina. There are some others listed under Beach Road and Anna Square.
Kapilan, a member of the Teynampet zone town vending committee, says that 1544 biometric vending cards have so far been issued by the Corporation.
Media reports cite an enumeration undertaken in 2019 to have identified as many as 1962 shops.
The Lede contacted Teynampet Zonal Officer Ravikumar J for clarity but he declined to share details, stating that the matter was sub judice.
Biometric Identification Cards
The Chennai Corporation’s 2017 enumeration drive was meant to identify street vendors in the city and provide them with biometric vending cards.
Muthu, the founder-president of the Tamil Nadu Nethaji Subhash Chandra Bose Unorganised Construction and Fishing Workers Security Council, however, rues, “The [biometric vending] cards have been issued to those even without stalls. People totally unrelated [to this] have been given the cards.” He is not the only person to claim so.
Panchatcharam T, a vendor at Anna Square, says, “Those selling flowers have been given the card. I have set up a stall. I too have been given the card. They have given the card to those with stalls and also to those selling goods by hand. When authorities carry out eviction, the latter also fight saying that they have the card. When the police say they can’t set up shop here, they say, ‘Here, I have the card. Why shouldn’t I do sales?’”
Panchatcharam says that even vendors who have arrived from north Indian states have the ID cards.
Quizzed about the claims of vendors without carts being in possession of the biometric identity cards, Regional Deputy Commissioner Sridhar said that he would check whether the Teynampet Zonal Officer has got any representation regarding that, as he had not directly received any such complaints.
In 2020, in compliance with a court order, the Corporation again issued temporary vending cards for those vendors who did not receive biometric ID cards.
After Enumeration, Now Regularisation
Two years after the enumeration drive, the Chennai Corporation had, in December 2019, submitted to the Madras High Court that only 900 street vendors would be allowed on the Marina beach for business. The Corporation also stated that it would issue these vendors with smart pushcarts.
This regularisation plan was revealed by the Corporation as part of its responses to the bench led by Justice Vineet Kothari, which expanded the scope of litigation moved by NGO Fishermen Care in 2015.
While the original petition sought to direct the state to increase the allowance provided to the community during the fishing ban period, the court included in its ambit, regularisation of vendors on the Marina promenade and Loop Road.
The court, in a hearing last Wednesday, asked the state why the Marina beach is not yet open when shopping malls and cinema theatres are. The next hearing is slated for November 18.
The question now is who gets to be among the 900 authorised vendors on the Marina with smart pushcarts?
This is the cause of confusion and heartburn.
The Chennai Corporation plans to decide this by drawing lots. 60% of the permissions will go to existing street vendors, while 40% will go to new applicants.
But will those who have been issued temporary ID cards this year be counted among the 60%? What about those left out in the 2017 enumeration drive? There is no clear answer.
To this question, Deputy Commissioner PN Sridhar told The Lede that the exact modalities are yet to be discussed.
He said that the 40% would include the many new applications for ID cards that the Corporation had received in the past year. “We are still in the process. But 60% will be from the existing ones. In the 40%, who all will be included – the modalities we are finalising. But mostly, that’s how it will be because if the 40% are new ones, I think the temporary ones (vending ID holders) will also be allowed to participate. We’ll check it up.”
Problems With Enumeration
The ill-fated enumeration drive to identify street vendors in Chennai has thrown up concerns about flawed methodology.
Sugarcane juice stall owner S Arumugam, 50, says that the enumeration survey was undertaken by youngsters.
In April 2019, the government submitted to the Madras High Court that the Corporation enumeration of the street vendors at the Marina beach was carried out by a private agency.
Arumugam says there was “a leader who split teams that then went around seeking details from stalls. They took photographs of cotton candy sellers and the like. They asked such people and took photographs. The survey wasn’t taken properly. The Corporation also didn’t come,” he claimed.
“They didn’t ask if there was an association. If so, all stalls could have been covered. But they split. They came and said they have to take photographs. Here is the chit, they handed it to us and went away. We enquired as to why they were coming separately and giving chits. What the surveyor does is he goes after the cotton candy seller – the north Indians – takes their photos and gives chits and goes. But they did not do a proper survey of those who have been doing sales for long. If it was done properly, the vending card count would have risen,” Arumugam added.
Arumugam says that many vendors themselves contacted the Corporation and later got themselves photographed for the ID cards. However, some vendors were careless, he adds.
Deputy Commissioner of the Greater Chennai Corporation J Meghanatha Reddy, did not return calls requesting comment.
While the government ruminates over what to do, beach vendors are stuck.
“In these eight months, it feels as if we have been hit for 10 years. It will take about two years to return to normalcy,” rues Subramani, who is also the president of the Anna MGR Puratchi Thalaivi Sirukadai Vyabarigal Sangam (small shop owners and traders association).