Gyan Bahadur Shrestha, a farmer rearing oxen and buffaloes in Okhaldhunga, came to Kathmandu with his family when he could not survive in the village during the armed conflict. For his work, he bought a second-hand bicycle and learned to ride to make his commute easier. And, even today, that bicycle has been the source of his income and has covered the daily expenses of his family and the school fees of his sons.
For the last eight years, Shrestha has been riding his bicycle from shop to shop, in choks and alleys, selling potato chips as a street vendor. Ram Khatri, who runs a shop in Baneshwar, regularly buys potato chips from Shrestha as customers are growing more fond of locally-produced potato chips in recent times. “Even though it looks like a business, in a way, he has been providing service for people like us.”
Khatri explains. “If I go and buy the chips myself, I would have to add the taxi fare to the journey, but he brings it only after a phone call, and at the production cost, so is it not a service?”
However, Shrestha needs help to safeguard his bicycle today. He is constantly worried about the Kathmandu city police coming and seizing his bicycle at any time, from anywhere.
This has been a shared concern among street vendors in the country’s capital as the Kathmandu metropolitan city under the leadership of new mayor Balen Shah has warned them of action if they do not stop occupying streets and pedestrian pavements for trade activities.
Like Shrestha, another mobile street vendor Gautam Yadav of Rautahat is also worried about encounters with the metropolitan police these days. However, ready to face the ordeal, the 50-year-old reaches Kalimati vegetable market at 4 am every day, in the cold, to collect the vegetables for his day ahead.
From Kalimati, he goes to his room and, after a cup of tea, he goes to sell vegetables from house to house in the Thapathali-Babarmahal area. After his morning routine, he has his meal at a restaurant and rests only to go to a wholesale market in Balkhu to collect fruits for his next trip.
When Jyotsana Prajapati of Baneshwar wants fruits or vegetables, she calls Dharmendra Sah of Rautahat, the street vendor frequenting her neighbourhood. “Smaller shops here do not even keep a price list, yet no one takes action against those who charge rampantly, adding their rent to the price of the goods,” she says, “Instead, those who bring goods door-to-door on bicycles give them the right price and we can even bargain a little.”
But, it is not out of desire or hobby that Yadav endures the pollution, from dawn to dusk. His farm back in the village produces enough crops to eat. But what will one do just by having to eat? He wants his children to complete at least up to grade 12.
“My wife is sick, and she needs to be brought to Kathmandu for regular treatment. I need to marry off my two daughters and arrange dowry for both. To manage all that, I need to push my bicycle around at least for another five years. Who does not want to go back to the village and live happily with the family, but if I go now, I will have to sell my farm to feed my family.”
And, he says, that he is now used to meeting his customers daily and is fond of the bond they have formed. “If one day I do not reach them with vegetables, the next day many of my customers ask me, ‘Why didn’t you come?’. I have been going from door to door for 12 years, after all.”
“There are people who dislike street vendors, but there are also many who treat us like humans, and respect us. They pay me for my service. And when I need, they have been helped on a personal level,” he says.
Making lives easier
Many Kathmanduites consider the job of street vendors inferior as it demands a lot of hard work and seemingly minimum payment. But their presence is making the daily life of the urban people easier.
The number of mobile street vendors, rickshaw riders and hawkers to sell vegetables and fruits in Kathmandu is uncertain. Bicycles and hand carts are also being used for everything from selling clothes to utensils, from collecting household waste to selling ice cream and from repairing utensils to making mattresses.
The 38-year-old Jitendra Yadav from India is known as the “bicycle man” who roams the streets of Kathmandu when he is not busy in his field. Always smiling, he entered Kathmandu some 10 years ago and has been going door-to-door repairing pressure cookers and gas stoves. After 9 am, he reaches different areas of the city, riding a bicycle and making distinct sounds with the parts of the cooker he carries.
Another street vendor, Rangeshwar Koiri of Sitamarhi in India, is proud to say that many houses in Kathmandu adorn the earthen vases on their roofs and verandas that he sold on a rickshaw. He says that he sells more than 40 vases every day. “Since the vases are heavy and fragile, many find it difficult to buy from shops and bring them home themselves. So, people get happy when I reach door-to-door to sell the vases and have minimal profit margin too.”
Sabita Bhandari of Buddhanagar is happy that people like Yadav are there to repair the cookers, in the comfort of her home at a cheaper price than at a shop. “People find it difficult to walk around carrying old dishes. So, when they find someone that will repair them at home, they enjoy the service. And if it is a service, why would the city government persecute us?” he asks.
The 31-year-old Tej Yadav of Siraha, who is selling plastic utensils on his bicycle, also has a story to share. “The broker ran away with the Rs 200,000 I gave him to go to Qatar. Then I bought a bicycle here with an additional loan to get through. This is now my second cycle. But, the city office will take this too.”
It is surprising to see the local government getting insecure with the bicycles of the street vendors, even though no customer has been bothered by his work, he says, adding, “My bicycle has not blocked the road of those expensive cars. So why such measures?”
The Kathmandu metropolitan city is keeping a close eye on street vendors. It has banned them from selling on bicycles and carts along with punishing those who obstruct the public roads by keeping goods for business or private use. The city government even issued a notice stating the same.
But the notice worried Gyan Bahadur Shrestha. “Not all people can be doctors and engineers; we are illiterate and poor. But if the new mayor wants to create a city without the “poor”, be it. But will the country thrive by chasing away those who want to work and earn in the country?”
Prajapati does not like the city government’s move to ban street vendors. “If they are going to ban, they should also make alternative arrangements for them and make arrangements to open small stores in different localities to sell vegetables and fruits at reasonable prices.”
The majority of the people working as mobile street vendors in Kathmandu are Nepalis of the Madheshi origin or Indian citizens. According to urban planners, the willingness to work hard is still low among citizens of the hilly region. That is why these people and their dedication see many opportunities in it.
Urban planning expert Pitambar Sharma says, “In the city, there are opportunities for low-level informal employment, and they help to make urban life easier and contribute to supply chain management.”
Sharma adds they would not have enough money to register themselves with the money they earn by selling in alleys and different localities. But, it is not just the number of vendors on bicycles that is high; there is also an equally high number of people who buy from them. “That’s why the sellers should not be displaced but arranged better”, said Sharma.
This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.