Unheard plights of street vendors in Kathmandu

Despite their irrefutable contributions to the economy, street vendors are often overlooked and undervalued by policymakers, law enforcement agencies and the general public.

Anjila Shrestha

  • Read Time 5 min.

Picture this. You never got the opportunity to get educated. Your family had to struggle hard to just make ends meet. You come to Kathmandu, the land of opportunity, to get a better chance to play with the cards they have been dealt with. So with big dreams, you migrated to Kathmandu to work for a better life for yourself and your family. You work hard every day, selling goods on the busy streets of the city. You usually get harassed by police and have your carts snatched away, but you always used to get it back. You were already struggling but then the pandemic hit. Business came to a standstill. It became an arduous task to even put food on the table. But slowly after lockdown restrictions started lifting and the horizon of a new era was dawning upon you. 

Things were finally looking to get on the path to normality. However, things took a turn for the worse when the local government and the police began intensifying the crackdown on street vendors.  You had heard the city chant “Mayor for the People” but failed to realize ‘elite’ was written on the fine print.

Street vending and economy 

Street vendors in Nepal are a vital part of the informal economy as they play a critical role in providing goods and services to their communities. Every day, street vendors in Nepal work tirelessly to provide for their families and support their communities. They provide vital goods and services to their communities, often filling gaps in the formal economy that are left unmet. Street vendors also generate employment and contribute to the overall economic well-being of their communities. The hidden values of street vendors’ services are often ignored. Despite their irrefutable contributions to the economy, they are often overlooked and undervalued by policymakers, law enforcement agencies and the general public. 

According to the data from the Central Bureau of Statistics Nepal, the population of Kathmandu district grew by 45 percent between 2001 and 2011, with a significant portion of this growth attributed to migration from rural areas. So it is safe to say Kathmandu has a significant number of immigrants within its area. The issues of poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunity that drive so many Nepalis to work on the streets while having to face an uphill battle to have a decent earnings living off working in an informal economy. 

The government cannot just remove self employed revenue generating working individuals working for the benefit of the citizens without giving them a better alternative.   

A major prominent issue is the lack of understanding and support for street vendors, which makes it difficult for them to advocate for their rights and needs. Street vendors in Nepal often face harassment and intimidation from authorities, who view them as a nuisance or a threat to the formal economy. There have been many reported cases where street vendors have been forcibly removed from their vending locations or had their goods confiscated by authorities. This has forced the street vendors to organize mass protests against it. Kathmandu Metropolitan City is adamant on removing all street vendors and has tasked all the wards to achieve it. Even though legislation such as the Local Government Operation Act 2074 (2017) grants the municipal police the authority to enforce the laws and policies of the city (including the power to monitor and oversee local markets and parking areas as well as protect public land and property), the Act does not specify the amount of force that the police are permitted to use when detaining street vendors and their goods. These cases highlight the need for greater support and protection for street vendors in Nepal. 

The higher ups fail to realize the hidden value of street vendors and their contributions to employment and the local economy. According to an analytical report on the informal sector of the National Economic Census 2018, out of the 3.22 million persons employed in the country, 25.8 percent (832,187) persons are employed in the informal sector. This report also shows that out of the total of 923,027 business establishments operating in Nepal, 49.9 percent (460,422) firms are not registered, and are counted as informal enterprises. In Nepal, street businesses occupy 3.87 percent of informal sector enterprises and employ 1.4 percent of the labor force. The Nepal Street Vendors Union’s data shows there are more than 10,000 street vendors around the Valley.  

Despite their importance to the economy, street vendors in Nepal often face a number of challenges. In a research conducted in 2020, average monthly net business income of street vendors was found to be Rs 22,500 and 54 percent of street vendors were found to have consumption above the poverty line which was covered by their net business income. But it was found that if respondents were not involved in street vending only 42 percent of respondents could have consumption above the poverty line which could be covered by their income from other jobs and professions. 

Myopic vision

What the policy makers and statisticians also fail to see is the human side of the effect of these irrational policies brought forth. The actions taken by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City affect the daily life of an average street vendor who needs to work every day just to make ends meet. While the higher ups consider it as a “cleaning campaign” and “beautification of Kathmandu”, they fail to realize that Kathmandu is built by the aspirations of all the immigrants and native citizens with a dream to attain prosperity. Ad hoc-ism shown in removal of street vendors from the streets is nowhere near a plausible solution for controlling traffic jams or inducing the free flow of pedestrians on the roads of Kathmandu. What the Mayor of the city fails to realize is that policies have unintended consequences. When the authorities remove the street vendors they disarm their only way of survival and, in turn, also deal a huge blow to the economy sector. 

Because street vending provides a source of income for thousands of socially and economically marginalized people and has major poverty implications, it should not be considered just as a “problem of the street”. There is a dire necessity to have a well managed system as it is the source of livelihood for thousands of people. It also provides goods and services at a lower cost to low-income consumers. 

The current approach taken, where removing the vendors using police force from the streets and confiscating the push carts along with the goods displayed for sale, is not only illogical but is also immoral. The general approach taken by the executives now is not only elitist but also indifferent to the revenue generation of an overlooked marginalized group–the urban poor in the streets. If the executives really want to “solve” the problems created by street vending, they should fix a certain time period throughout all areas for street vending that doesn’t obstruct street flow and doesn’t cause blockages in traffic. Creating a sense of ownership will also encourage the street vendors to keep the area clean. Proper garbage disposal for street vendors can also solve the issue of littering. Provision for fine for the litterers can also help in reducing littering. For smooth flow of traffic, the local government needs to improve their urban planning methods, improving public transportation and creating appropriate pedestrian lanes and a planned and ideal infrastructure. Only road expansion and removal of street vendors is not going to solve the problem.  

This is definitely not just the problem of Kathmandu city. The data provided by Central Bureau of Statistics 2021 shows that Lumbini province has the highest number of street vending enterprises with 27.5 percent of the total which is followed by Bagmati province with 26.6 percent. Evidently, Province 1, Madhesh Province, Karnali Province, Sudurpaschim Province and Gandaki province also have high numbers of street vendors. In the long run, the street vendors absolutely need to be shifted in the formal sector. The government cannot just remove self employed revenue generating working individuals working for the benefit of the citizens without giving them a better alternative. 

Anjila Shrestha is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation, an economic policy think tank based in Kathmandu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the organization. [email protected]