Towards cleaner cities
The recent eviction of pavement hawkers from Colombo (The Pettah
especially) and other major cities in the country has become a
controversial topic. One needs to look at this issue dispassionately
before jumping to conclusions one way or the other.
Take one example, pedestrians could hardly walk on the pavements or
sidewalks in the Pettah as all the pavements had been virtually
‘invaded’ by hawkers who sold everything from pins to toys to clothes of
questionable quality at dirt cheap rates.
The pedestrians had two choices - somehow squeeze their way through
the maze of hawker stalls in great discomfort or literally take to the
The latter option was very dangerous, especially for children and the
elderly as buses and other traffic flowed at breakneck speeds. But many
people were compelled to walk on the road endangering their precious
lives simply because there was no room for them on the sidewalks.
Another major problem was that the pavement stalls blocked access to
the legitimate shops operating in the Pettah and indeed in other cities.
Some shops could not even be seen, having been ‘covered’ by the
pavement stalls. This led to massive losses for the shops, which
generally sell higher quality goods sourced from reputed suppliers
albeit at higher prices.
It goes without saying that the pavement stalls everywhere are
unauthorised constructions. They do not have any type of permission from
any recognised authority.
As the recent floods demonstrated, semi-permanent unauthorised
structures could lead to various problems. It is well known that
pavement hawkers dispose of their garbage right on to the streets, often
blocking drainage vents. The authorities were thus right in their
decision to remove pavement stalls in this respect alone.
There is another factor which is not often mentioned. Pavement
hawkers have been known to provide refuge to, and operate in connivance
with, certain criminal elements.
There are many smuggled items on the pavement hawkers’ inventory as
well. They have also become a conduit for underhand deals from dangerous
drugs to pornographic DVDs and magazines. The authorities seem to have
taken this factor and the security aspect also into consideration.
Pavement hawkers are also a major source of noise pollution, as many
of them use megaphones to attract customers. Their collective din can
sometimes be unbearable. The streets are definitely quieter sans the
Above all, pavement stalls are an eyesore. Colombo can never aspire
to become a major Asian commercial hub if they proliferate. Take any
major European, North American or indeed even a South East Asian city
and you will instantly notice one thing - there are no pavement stalls
There are designated car free pedestrian zones and weekly fairs (Pola
in local parlance) where sidewalk sellers including food vendors can
operate in these countries, but they are definitely not permitted to
sell their wares anywhere they please.
Major city centres/central business districts are strictly off limits
to them. Thus the gradual removal of pavement hawkers can be described
as a progressive step in Sri Lanka’s march to join the front ranking
nations of Asia.
One has to look at the other side too in a case such as this and look
for solutions to any problems. Pavement hawkers sell a variety of items
at very affordable prices and especially for those whose wallets do not
stretch far, they are a godsend.
There are many people who do not or cannot patronise shops and who
regularly patronise pavement stalls for day to day items.
Thousands of people depend on the pavement industry for their
livelihood, from traders to suppliers. It is important that they are
channelled to alternative, legal means of livelihood so that they do not
turn to crime and other nefarious activity.
Alternative trading places are being arranged for the evicted
pavement hawkers. This is a step in the right direction. Colombo’s new
World Market is one such example, though one nagging problem is that
most of the traders there maintained a presence in the streets as well.
That should not be allowed. Once they are moved to another location
meant specifically for street vendors, they should not be allowed to set
up stalls on the roadsides. In other words, they become owners of real
shops, not pavement stalls.
Sri Lanka has a lot of traditional polas (village fairs) where
vendors can freely sell their wares. This concept could be extended on a
permanent basis to designated pedestrian zones in Colombo and other
The Galle Face Green is one such example where food vendors are
permitted to operate freely. There could be separate food streets as
well, as seen in countries such as Singapore. This well help attract
tourists as well.
The authorities should also consider a mechanism for seasonal
pavement vendors, who put up stalls only during events such as Vesak,
Sinhala and Tamil New Year and Christmas.
They cannot be considered as long-term vendors in any case. The same
goes for mobile sellers who push their goods-laden carts in busy
The authorities should have a system to register these individuals
too and if possible, grant them permanent places. Trading in buses and
trains has already been banned and many have hailed this step.
The authorities should ensure that the evicted pavement vendors do
not return to their old haunts. That will negate the effectiveness of
the entire program. No one should interfere in this process - we have
seen how previous attempts at cleaning up the pavements ended in failure
due to undue political pressure.
Independent and impartial officers should be appointed to track the
progress of vendors who are being provided with alternative trading
places. The police should also be involved in this task, lest criminal
elements take advantage of the situation. It will take a couple of years
at least for the program to bear fruit.
The ultimate aim should be a win-win situation for all - pavement
vendors, consumers and the authorities. If Colombo becomes a ‘clean’
city at the end of the day, everybody would have won.