Friday, April 22, 2011

Need v/s Greed - the highs and lows of being an illegal train hawker

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.


  1. hey really liked the post ! its so precise, yet one doesn't lose interest !

  2. Wow! That was a very informative read, Manasi. It's very interesting to see how the entire bureaucracy (which is extremely corrupt)works in a huge metropolitan area like Mumbai. To get the system straight-forward, it will take strong political will & a transformation will take a long time, I guess!

    Keep up the good work!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Interesting post. And as I read it in the previous comment, I would like to understand legalizing corruption in a better way.

    From what my limited knowledge so far tells me, it would be like taking an additional fee while dealing with the government. But then would the officials be satisfied? It is an official amount, they want more and to use a word from the title of this post, Greed would step in. So there will be a bribe beyond the legalized corruption.

    Can we truly stop it?

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  6. You kinda lost me there. My fault though.

    So what I got so far is that essentially we split the bribe in two, one we pay to the guy who is supposed to do our work and one we pay to another guy who makes sure our work is done by guy one.

    In some cases, these two guys can be the same?

    Film stars get away without paying money because they don't declare the money/assets they earned/own. I don't see how this is connected.

    Also, I go back to my earlier comment. Legalizing it is just a way to call it an extra 'fee'. There will be a fee beyond this fee. I mean if I am paying a bribe to get a connection along with 100 others, there will be 10 people who will pay a bribe over this bribe to get it even faster. There is demand, there are people to take advantage of this.

    I agree that chaos will lead to order. But that is till some other system tries to creep in. Then a new cycle.

    Come to think of it, government has more to lose by 'legalizing' bribes. Specially the small fishes that occupy most of the windows that serve folks.

    Just my two cents.

  7. I don't agree with Chinmay. I don't think we need to legalize bribes. Licenses would work far better. If the hawkers are provided with licenses, there would be no need to pay haftas to the RPF officials. Legalizing corruption is an altogether different topic.

  8. Why were the comments removed?

  9. I didn't remove them! I'll ask him why he did..

  10. This essay makes you wonder if legalizing corruption will be more useful compared to cracking down on it and (re)starting license-raj. Any citizen who has gone to a govt. run institution HAS offered a bribe to get his work done speedily or without wanton delays. Might as well legalize this, it will get rid of the 'agents' and make the middlemen directly responsible for the welfare of the poor class instead of some red-taped govt. policy. On the security perspective, bribery is an easy way to spread fake currency notes.

  11. Legal bribe collection would, in no way, encroach upon the rights of professional bribists. All the bribe money would be theirs to keep. Only difference would be that officer would be responsible for the people who provide bribes and listen to their complaints too. We have a similar system in place in the slums where the slum-dwellers have a local (unofficial) bribe-officer and he ensures tax-free life, ration cards, free electricity and other sops. The middle-class has no such system and legalizing bribes will create it. The govt. will have no share in the bribe pickings, just like rich film stars can get away without paying any income tax. It will be upto the bribe-officer whether to use the money for personal pleasure or use it to hire ruffians and send money higher up to ensure more sops for his customers and get a larger following. To avoid monopoly, the govt. can allocate multiple bribe-officers per area ensuring good competition. Also, the ones with the legal right to take bribes will eliminate those without the legal bribe right - something which our judiciary could not do for 60 years. The only way to fight a corrupt system is to implode it through uncontrolled growth, not by restricting it.