October 8, 2000
The street vending problem seems to have been with us forever. In fact it hasn't, but it was hard to remember what the city centre used to look like - until, that is, Justice Carl Singh dismissed the injunction which had prevented the City Council from moving the Regent street vendors. The vending community considers itself very hard done by, but by the standards of other places the authorities here have been amazingly indulgent. In Calcutta, for example, which had many thousands of hucksters with many thousands of structures cluttering the roads, everyone woke up one morning to find that the bulldozers had been at work. And there were no preliminary discussions about relocation so the shock could have been cushioned.
Everyone accepts that the vendors are trying to earn an honest living. Who can fail to be sympathetic to single mothers, in particular, who sell on the streets in order to feed their children? But other people have rights in this issue as well: the businessmen whose entrances and display windows are obscured by pavement stalls, those with investments in the hospitality industry, perhaps, who want a city which is more presentable from a tourism point of view, and the people of Georgetown in general, who have to fight their way along the pavement in some portions of the business district and are offended by the litter and untidiness. It doesn't help the economy if the official shopkeepers with their overheads and employees to pay, are squeezed out of business. And when the economy is contracting we all suffer.
So what we have here is a clash of rights. And to acknowledge the vendors' rights as being total, is to commit an injustice against others. Part of the difficulty is that the vendors have never accepted that the circumstances which made it possible for them to sell on the pave would not exist forever, and that some day they would be moved. We have had endless recommendations about alternative sites for them, and endless negotiations with them about acceptable venues, but they have rejected proposals in the belief that the inevitable could always be postponed. Finally, they short-circuited talks by resorting to the courts, which gave them breathing space temporarily, but may not have been their best long-term move. Now they find themselves unprepared and lacking any viable alternative.
It should be said that the authorities too do not appear to have prepared for the day when the vendors' injunction would be dismissed - unless there is some special provision in the proposed town plan which has not yet been announced. Whatever the case, the Prime Minister's suggestions, at least, are not all that helpful in the circumstances. He has proposed mini-bus parks at St Philip's Green, Independence Park and the John Ford car park, where vendors too could set up stalls. Certainly the Anglican Church would have a right to take exception to the St Philip's Green proposal, which would turn their churchyard into a noisy, possibly vulgar centre of secular activity. Hardly the thing to inspire sacred thoughts and peace of mind. Added to which the location is one of the few green areas of the city left (it was Georgetown's second cemetery, before the transfer to Le Repentir was made). Last, but not least, of course, from the vendors' point of view, it is by no means the safest area of the capital. There are some obvious objections to the Independence Park suggestion too, while the Mayor has told the media that the John Ford car park is slated for development. Be the latter as it may, Georgetown's chief citizen had one unassailable argument for the Prime Minister, and that is that there is no point in finally settling on the relocation of vendors before the town plan has been unveiled. Absolutely true. However, while we all wait for the much anticipated plan and the discussions for long-term settlement of the vendors which will presumably follow that unveiling, are there no temporary arrangements which could be put in place in the interim?
The vendors have to face the reality, that their Regent street days, at least, are at an end. They too must put their minds to possible alternatives which they can submit to the authorities both for temporary and permanent solutions.
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