“I am surviving with my last savings,” said 40-year-old Ashim Biswas, who worked as a station hawker at the Ashok Nagar Road railway station selling parathas before the lockdown. “I have 12 people to feed in my family. I tried a house painter’s job that paid 300-350 rupees a day, but that work ran out in a few days.” 

On March 24, when the lockdown was announced, train services came to a standstill. Railway platforms, like the one at Ashok Nagar Road in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, lay deserted; station and running hawkers were suddenly out of work. 

“I used to earn around 12,000-15,000 rupees, but after the lockdown I have no job and no income,” said Joy Biswas, 26, a running hawker on the Sealdah-Bangaon suburban train no. 33851. Headquartered in Kolkata, the train mostly carries daily wage and domestic workers coming into Kolkata from the suburbs of Ashok Nagar, Habra, Gobardanga, Guma, Bira, Maslandapur, Bangaon and Thakurnagar. Joy’s father, Jatish Biswas, 53, is also a hawker on the same line. 

Puja Singha, 35, was a running hawker on the same line. She  sold plastic household goods such as combs, tea strainers, bowls, scrubbers and more. Now stationed at the  exit, she is hoping to catch the eye of passersby. “We can barely afford to eat and are skipping meals sometimes. We have not received any sort of aid so far,” she said. 

‘Running’ hawkers like Joy, Jatish  and Puja travel in local and suburban trains, selling everything from peanuts, dal and fruit to knick-knacks such as combs, soap, cheap jewellery and books. They must strictly stay on the routes given by their union and cannot jump trains. Joy used to take the 8:55 a.m. Habra local train in the morning, get down at the Dum Dum Cantonment an hour later, and take the same train returning towards Bangaon. Each trip is just under an hour long and he would be on his feet, hawking guavas and mosambis (sweet lime) on this suburban train.

Puja Singha, a running hawker, selling a variety of products at the exit point of Ashok Nagar Road station. Photo by Sumanta Roy

‘Our voices are never heard’

“There is no government data on hawkers,” says Murad Hossain,  Secretary of the National Hawkers Federation (NHF) and Joint Secretary of the Hawker Sangram Committee. He estimates that around one crore hawkers rely on railway passengers to earn a living, selling food and goods on platforms and in moving trains.

The lockdown has derailed their livelihood and incomes. “In West Bengal, two railway hawkers took their own lives because of loss of income. The pandemic has destroyed their community. The most vulnerable are the station and running hawkers. With the gradual opening of business, street hawkers may get some relief. But with no trains for almost seven months, station and running hawkers are doomed,” said Murad. 

Koyel Roychowdhury  sings in local trains for a living. She is a single mother with a young daughter and took to hawking after her husband left them. “People [used to] recognise my talent [and pay me]. But now I am forced to sell tea in the local market every day. I make tea in my house and take it with me on my cycle to sell it from one market to another, twice a day.”

Most hawkers mentioned in this article are Namashudra Dalits and they belong to the Habra-I and Habra-II blocks of the North 24 Parganas in West Bengal. Running hawkers can expect to earn around Rs. 15,000 a month, while station hawkers earn around Rs. 8,000-10,000 a month. Both station and running hawkers told us that they earn more in winter months as the weather is better – passengers are inclined to spend more and buy more snacks. “In the summer, as a peanut seller, it is not possible to reach out to each and every crowded bogie in the heat,” says Subha Halder, a 24-year-old hawker of dal and peanuts.

Many hawkers like Joy have tried to switch to daily wage work  but are facing competition from other out-of-work daily wage workers all looking for the same low-paid, unskilled jobs. “For a few days I tried working as a stonecrusher earning 350 rupees a day, but that work ran out. Now, I am selling fruits in my locality; I don’t have a cycle, so I carry them around on my head,” said Joy.  

Janadan Halder, 52, was a fruit seller on the Bangaon-Sealdah local for 20 years. “I used to earn 250 rupees a day before the lockdown. Now I am buying mosambi from Habra town and selling it to different colonies, transporting it on my cycle,” he said. Halder’s  house was destroyed in cyclone Amphan and he is waiting to be compensated by the government. “Our voices are never heard. What is the point of having demands,” he added, when asked if he has any demands of the government. 

Railway hawkers left out

Passenger train services (only Shramik Specials) started on May 12, 2020, but hawkers have not been allowed to board. Long distance trains have resumed on some routes, but suburban trains are yet to do so; it is uncertain if hawkers will be allowed to work on either. From selling peanuts on the Bongaon local, hawker Joydev Biswas, 45, moved to selling vegetables on the pavement after lockdown. He began hawking them on his cycle carrier in the morning market. “I faced a huge loss, so now I am delivering vegetables to different places for a vegetable shop owner,” he said.

From left: Joydeb Biswas, Puja Singha, Milan Halder, Amar Sengupta, Dipankar Debnath, Kakoli Joydhor and Pinki Saha. Photo by Sumanta Roy

As recently as in 2014, the Centre passed the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act to ‘protect the rights of urban street vendors and to regulate street vending activities’. However, the act also states that it does not apply to ‘any land, premises and trains owned and controlled by the Railways under the Railway Act, 1989’.  

Hawker’s unions are fighting to be included under the act but they have other issues as well. “The Railway Protection Force treats running hawkers in an inhumane way and there is the never-ending dispute between the pantry car hawkers and the local hawkers,” said Murad. “Railway or station hawkers are of two types: hawkers who have authorisation from the rail authority to run their shops and those who do not. Most station hawkers run with the help of the hawkers union,” he added. 

Jagadish Gain, 68, is a running hawker who sells fruit at the Barasat Junction station that lies en route to Kolkata from the North 24 Parganas. “My age does not support me to do other work; I am helpless now,” he said. “I used to earn 300-400 rupees a day before the lockdown. We have no cash in hand now and my family is dependent on rations from the public distribution shop.”  

The Association for Protection of Democratic Rights Organisation, along with the NHF, have submitted a memorandum to the Sealdah deputy railway manager and general manager to start the local trains, but they are yet to get a response.

Kakoli Joydhor, 45, is a widow and mother of two young children. She sells fruit next to the ticket counter of the Ashok Nagar Road station. “I hope the local trains will begin operating soon. I am going through a tough time trying to support my two children,” she said.

Fear of privatisation

On July 1, 2020, the government of India issued a notice calling for private participation in some clusters of passenger train routes. Hawkers fear that the privatisation of railway stations  will permanently push them off trains and platforms. Murad of NHF said, “This government is for big industrialists; they will open a mall on the platform and there will be no place for hawkers. Then the price of a cup of tea will be 25 rupees instead of the 10 rupees it costs now.”

Amar Sengupta, 53, has been selling and repairing watches in his shop at the Ashok Nagar Road station for the last 42 years. If the platform is privatised he fears he will lose his customers. “It will be a huge blow for us. I am in touch with many of my customers, but if I am moved out to a new place there will be no income.” Shibu Das who sells jhalmuri on suburban trains agrees: “Privatisation will lead to the death of lakhs of hawkers. We will die of hunger. With the government at least we can raise issues, but there is no place for questioning the private sector. They will do as they wish.”

The writer would like to thank Professor Chirashree Dasgupta of JNU and Avijit Adhikary, Basudeb Banerjee, Shairik Sengupta and Subrata Sarkar for their help with this piece. 

Editor's note

Sumanta Roy is a research scholar at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He has been following the informal sector in the area of public health, and is keen to learn about the challenges to livelihoods during the lockdown and cyclone Amphan. Sumanta says, “Working on the ground is necessary along with the theories which we learn in the classrooms. My initial drafts were like research articles and I learnt from PARI how to document these as stories and while writing, how to tell your subject's story, not your own views.”