Sunday, February 28, 2010

street vendors and clandestine geometry

clandestine geometry is an interesting term i came across, while reading a book called 'street vendors in the global urban economy'.
an collection of insightful papers by various researchers covering the street vendor ecosystem across the world, primarily in the developing countries.
this term, used by Luciana Itikawa in the article of the same title, uses street maps of urban towns to plot the geometries of various densities and distribution related to the number of vendors at a place, the routes for smuggled goods, metropolitan tradeways etc.
capturing the economic and political synergies that are so closely intertwined with street vending.

i have always wondered the viability of street vending. with each transaction typically being a very small amount, and when the materials sold are perishables, such as food / vegetables etc - the nett take home for the vendor could be very small.

i could relate to the articles about the Indian scenario and found it interesting to note that the systems of political patronage and legal constraints are very similar all over the world.

for example, the municipality laws and the criminal laws [enforced by the police department] are in many points contradictory. that is, what is permitted by the municipality is not legal according to the police. so, technically it is near impossible for a street vendor to conduct business complying with all legal requirements.

then,there are these mafias and coteries that create or in some cases prevent unionization. many of these put women vendors at a great disadvantage. across major cities and towns, it appears that 20-50 rupees per day is paid by each vendor in terms of taxes and protection fees to the goons or the police!
the book has some statistics about not only the business generated by the street vendors per square meter, but also the bribes paid per square meter.
in brazil, for example, the bribe amounts to between 10.5 and 17 % of daily business volume!

there also seem to be an organized system to support these vendors with their supplies on a regular basis. obviously these middle men make more money than the vendors.

with all this, the kinds of goods being sold has also changed.
last weekend, i was in Pondicherry - and while taking a stroll along the ocean front, noticed a very large number of street vendors. this used to be a very peaceful and quiet walk, many years ago. i could find all kinds of wares being sold - from the regular 'chat' stall, to - i guess, pirated - DVDs. there were many chinese LED lit toys that could be catapulted in the air and would return to you, glowing all the while.
but, i could not find what i was looking for - after dinner - some dry roasted peanuts!
the peanuts that were available were the steamed ones, with garnishing of chillies, onion and pudina! while i like it, i was looking for the traditional sand roasted, slated peanuts.
finally i found one - and asked him why he was the only one.
he said that the margins are very low and the vendors prefer to switch to the boiled ones, as they can prepare them at home and the cart is less messy, while, for roasting, he needs the stove, and whoever buys, wants it hot - limiting his business volume.
he also comes there only for the weekends, he said.

the book also has stories of some successful vendors and how they made it, the kinds of challenges they had to overcome - as well as stories of dreams that went bust.

my intrigue about the parallel economy and the empathy for the plight of the street vendors has only increased after this book.

looking at the new entrants to this section, along my usual walking route, reaffirms that this still a financially viable option for many.
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