The other day a report appeared in the vernacular press that last week a fire broke out in the main plaza of the New Market somewhere near a very popular temple. The Fire Service was summoned which reacted very promptly but could not do anything to extinguish the fire as the approaches were clogged by parked two and four wheelers. Inside the plaza there was utter chaos with hawkers of all kinds occupying every inch of space to display their wares. It was more so because it happened to be a Sunday.
This is not the only place where hawkers create congestion. The Nawabi-era market called the Chowk area also suffers from the same predicament. Numerous efforts have been made to bestow on it an appearance that is in harmony with its heritage status. But no, things were back to where they were soon enough. The situation in these bazaars is so bad now, leave alone a fire tender, one cannot really negotiate the streets even on foot with ease. The crowds of hawkers with their pushcarts or wares spread on the roadside and the parked two wheelers make shopping a horrendous experience.
Barring a few, roads in Bhopal wear a chaotic look with hawkers running riot. Then there are kiosks (locally called gumties) all over the place by the sides of roads that are nothing but encroachments on public spaces causing hindrance to traffic and people’s mobility. Persistent encroachments have made many roads so narrow that both ways traffic has to move only on half of the total space of what are reasonably wide roads. No city in India, probably, suffers from this kind of acute problem as Bhopal.
Only a few people are responsible for this difficult and deplorable situation. They are the rent seekers – the elected representatives in the municipal corporation and the local legislative assembly. It is virtually a racket where they rent out the public spaces for a monthly payment by the encroacher, strangely making money by renting out government land. This is how kiosks are installed on the roadsides and whenever attempts are made to remove them by the municipal bureaucracy they intervene rather violently. After all, most of them are no better than dregs of society.
Likewise, thousands of hawkers who have never sought a license to ply their trade roam the streets or park their carts where they think they would find more custom without any consideration towards the busy traffic. As they have paid rent to one of the rent-seekers who is their benefactors they are sanguine that it is they (the rent seekers) who would ensure that they are not tormented and removed from wherever they have decided to carry on their business. The municipal corporation has provided hawkers’ corners but many would shun them and choose the easy way out to ply their illegal trade on congested roads making life difficult for the rest of the mobile humanity.
The elected representatives to various representative bodies consider it their right to plant anybody anywhere for a consideration and they are utterly unmindful of the law and their enforcers. A municipal councilor or a member of legislative assembly is a powerful person, a big (and mostly corrupt) man, who can dispatch any person coming in his way to oblivion without any questions being asked. These gentlemen act like mafia. When things hot up against the encroachers it is these rent-seekers who raise the cry of deprivation of livelihood against the law-enforces. Livelihood is a very sensitive matter and a seeming attempt to deprive it is more so.
At the back of all this is rural-urban migration. As aspirations increase or as circumstances in rural areas nose dive people move towards cities in search of means of livelihood. The first foray they make is to push some product on a daily wage or on commission basis standing on the streets or occupying a tract of foot path. Gradually they progress to push carts and then on to a kiosk, if at all. In all this the rent-seekers play an important role. Not only do they extort rent from them for plying a trade, they also fix them up with a shanty on a piece of government land. In course of time, in case a mafia don has found a new-comer submissive and prompt in making payments to him he may even have a title issued for the shanty in the name of the new encroacher.
It is a big unlawful business being carried on by politicians, petty and big, unhindered for decades. None has enough guts to dismantle the whole illegal structure for, after all, the rent-seekers have the backing of the government; in fact, they are the government. They have made encroaching on government lands a source of illegitimate income, at the same time creating a constituency for themselves making migration into the town very attractive. It was the Late Chief Minister Arjun Singh who took the first step by offering titles to the lands occupied by encroachers behind the Governor’s House. Since then it has been virtually free for all. There is not an area in the city which is devoid of shanties. One was surprised to find that they had even used the huge properties of the local collector’s and commissioner’s offices for settling migrants. None of the supposedly powerful IAS officers could perhaps do anything as it was politically sensitive; any effort to remove them would promptly be countered by the argument of dismantling of poor people’s shelters bringing the officials out in bad light.
Whether it is the streets or the government lands, they are not going to be freed of encroachers any time soon. In today’s India rural-urban migration is a fact of life. It appears to be the aim of the government to balance out the rural and urban population at 50:50. But, generally, there has been no preparation by the local government to receive such heavy numbers of migrants. The provisions made under Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) were far too modest and could not have met the astronomical requirements of housing for poor. Besides, many such houses built under JNNURM and Rajiv Awas Yojna have remained vacant while shanties or jhuggis keep multiplying.
In Bhopal even the City Development Plan has not been published after the one brought out in 1995 that expired in 2005. The local city administration has, therefore, got far more than what it can chew and, naturally, things are going haywire. There is no indication of any step to control the oncoming messy situation. In the midst of all this confusion there is only one section of the population, the rent-seekers, who are making not only merry but also making hay.
Or, maybe, it is they who are obstructing the very process of city-planning. One couldn’t really tell; in this topsy-turvy world that we live in anything is possible.