The capital's footpaths as usual make news for all the wrong reasons. In recent times the focus on those is even more intense because of the Dhaka South City Corporation's move to drive hawkers out of their illegal possession of footpath. Meant exclusively for pedestrians, the walkways in the Gulistan and Baitul Mokarram areas have long been taken over by vendors of all kinds. Unsurprisingly, hawkers habituated to consider it their inalienable right to do business there have opposed the move. Their locus standi is not in favour of them to make their case strong, though. Only the humanitarian aspect involved here may make an appeal to the city authorities for some grace.
Admittedly, Dhaka city's footpaths, barring a handful of rare segments in some areas, are an eyesore. Either those are permanently encroached upon by shopkeepers, unauthorised kitchen markets or vendors. Construction materials such as MS rods, cement, sand, bricks or stone chips, furniture articles, drums or gas ovens and cylinders, newly hemmed mattresses and pillows, display boards and what not are there on footpaths to obstruct movement of passers-by! Then there are motorcycles and cars illegally parked on footpaths. It is a free-for-all affair for people mostly engaged in trades.
Add to this the recent spate of digging out footpaths in order to construct drains underneath, the picture of anarchy and chaos may be somewhat complete. Sure enough, not the entire length and breadth of the 430 km-long footpaths of the two city corporations is used for carrying out trades. There are strategic areas and points where certain commodities make roaring business. And still more than a quarter of a million of people have opted for vending on footpaths for their livelihoods.
Theirs is a small business requiring not a big investment and marketing acumen. Their asset is their smartness and capacity for persuasion. Sure enough, they would have avoided the daily struggle and hassle of displaying their articles mostly under the open sky and securing the unsold items for the next day's transaction had they found a better option.
The reality is that hawkers are responsible for a considerably large economy. When the annual toll they pay to linemen alone is more or less equal to the combined budgets of the two city corporations, the total transaction figure may cause many eyebrows to raise. A report prepared by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development have estimated that the amount of illegal toll collection from Dhaka's footpaths stand at Tk18.25 billion which is roughly equal to the two city corporations' annual budgets together.
One understands that this is the cost of doing illegal business on footpaths. What however does not so prominently come to the light is the beneficiaries behind the scene. The BRAC report has only made a mention of political leaders, law enforcement agencies among other unnamed quarters who share the ill-gotten dividend. A hawker has to pay an illegal monthly rent of Tk1,000-3,000 and then the daily toll paid to a lineman ranges between Tk 50-300. Not only is the unearned source of money so huge, it gives benefits on a sustained basis.
So the move initiated by the mayor of the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) is likely to draw ire from many quarters receiving the unearned benefits. He will have to fight on many fronts. Yet his is a fight for a most reasonable cause. The capital needs to come out of the mess in the interest of regaining the status worth its name. Dhaka city has become near dysfunctional on many counts, the loss of footpaths to chaotic vending being one. Its spill-over effect is felt on the roads and traffic movement which most of the time come to a standstill creating gridlocks of unprecedented orders.
Leaders of the hawkers' association have raised a pertinent question involving the illegal tolls they pay. They are willing to pay similar amount in revenue. Right now the government and the city corporations are receiving nothing from them. If the illegal toll collectors can be removed and the government develops a mechanism to legalise hawkers' trade at some suitable places, instead of footpaths, the city corporations will have a far larger amount each at their disposal to construct infrastructure for development and entertainment.
Such a proposal is worth considering because it is likely to be mutually beneficial. But one thing has to be ensured that the present style of footpath occupation will not happen under any circumstances. The footpaths of the main thoroughfares have to be kept free from any trade, however small it may be. The back alleys and less used streets or spaces at some distance from bus stands may be allocated for such commercial transactions. On holidays, though, the footpaths on the main streets may be used for the purpose.
Hawkers have to be issued special ID cards with codes for doing business in a particular area. This is necessary for a number of reasons. First, they must not be subjected to harassment once their genuineness is confirmed. Second, no fake hawker can infiltrate with ill motives. Third, there is a need for restricting the number of hawkers. After all, the population increases but city spaces in strategic locations do not get expanded. Before the problem gets out of hand, it should be tackled rationally.