Warning: Long post
While travelling by locals in Mumbai, it is a common sight to see vendors selling some or the other paraphernalia at the station or in the trains. Most of us never stop to consider the legality of this business though. Shweta, a 20-something hawker who sells ‘Ads’ nail polish for Rs. 10 a piece on the CST-Thane route says, “I don’t have a valid license to sell on trains. I also never bother to buy a ticket. ” Her profit margin is Rs. 2 per piece and on an average she earns more than Rs. 100 per day.
Besides travelling without a ticket, most train hawkers break another law. Under Railways Act 114(1), selling goods on trains without a license from the government is illegal. If caught, illegal vendors are tried in a Railway Court and as per the judge’s order, either fined Rs. 1200 or sentenced to six months imprisonment. While any government official can catch unauthorized train hawkers, only officials of the Railway Protection Force have the power to prosecute them.
Ramesh, a stationery hawker at C.S.T. recounts, “I have been caught by the police several times. I have also been taken to court and fined. At times I have spent a night in jail.” There is a darker side to the story however. Ramesh continues conspiratorially, “Sometimes, RPF officials pocket some money and let us off the hook. If in junior position, RPF officials take Rs. 20 to 30, and senior officials usually take around Rs. 50 to 100.”
Of late, middlemen have started collecting haftas from unauthorized vendors. They then come to an understanding with the RPF officials regarding their “customers”. Sandeep Gupta, a chikki-seller on C.S.T station says, “Everyday, sethji collects Rs. 250 from me and other hawkers. He then distributes it amongst the RPF officials. This way, we can go about our daily business of earning a living.” Elaborating on the role of the middleman, Sandeep said, “Jab bhi humko koi RPF wala pakadta hai, sethji humein chhudwate hain.” (Whenever an RPF official catches us, the middleman gets us off).
Despite paying daily hafta, Sandeep said that sometimes they are arrested and tried in the Railway Court. As a result, they have to cough up another Rs. 1000. Interestingly, most hawkers would prefer to operate with a license. Instead of paying daily haftas, and occasional fines, a license would enable them to operate at a much lower cost. Sandeep went on to state, “License milta kaha hai? Indira Gandhi ke zamaane mein milta tha. Ab toh milta hi nahi hai. Milta toh hum nahi lete kya?” (Licenses were issued during Indira Gandhi’s government. Now it’s impossible to get one. We would prefer to operate with a license).
Regardless of rampant corruption and continued loss of earnings due to hafta to police, and prosecution fines, many people continue to sell on trains. Suman, a chikki-sell at C.S.T aged above 50 says, “I have 3 boys and I don’t expect them to take care of me. My husband died 10 years ago. I’ve been doing this business since I was 20 years old. It brings me enough to survive. God has been very kind to us.”
In light of train bombings of 2006, security is a concern, as most unauthorized vendors have no ID proof. Sandeep Khiratkar, senior RPF official says, “I’ve been transferred here from Patna. There, I regularly registered complaints about vendors looting people. This is Mumbai. These are poor people. We have nothing to worry about.” Such a lackadaisical attitude is shocking to say the least, especially when a large-scale attack took place recently.
Issuing licenses to vendors who wish to sell goods on trains will stop the exploitation of poor vendors, for whom selling on trains is the only means of earning a living. It will also reduce corruption by RPF officials and drastically cut down on security risks.