The Sunday Leader

Selling At Public Or Hawkers’ Expense?

By Waruni Karunarathne

Heavy criticism was directed at the Colombo Mayor’s alleged decision to lift the ban imposed by the former regime on hawkers preventing them from doing business on the Colombo city pavements. During the last government, the Urban Development Authority (UDA) under former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa initiated several city beautification projects and they imposed the ban on hawkers of the Colombo city from selling on the pavements. During the process, the UDA abolished many unauthorised shops. Even though the questions on certain city beautification projects were raised and are still being asked – massive expenditures on them, their functionality and doing them amidst more burning national priorities – many appreciated the attempts to keep the city clean and pleasant. In such context, allowing hawkers back on pavements is frowned upon and seen as an attempt to reverse those achievements.

Justin Perera, Sumith Ruwan and Asanka Sanjeewa

Speaking to The Sunday Leader Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) spokesperson Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe criticised the decision of the Colombo Mayor. “Colombo city was in a bad state. During the last regime former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa managed to clean the city and bring it among one of the cleanest and orderly cities in the South Asian region. We appreciate that achievement. If this government reverse such good deeds of the previous government, it is a waste of the entire effort,” he added.

However Deputy Mayor of Colombo Titus Perera said that hawkers have been allowed to do business in certain streets only during the Ramadan festival. “We have previously done the same in New Year festival season. This time also they requested to do business on pavements during the Islamic New Year season. Only for that purpose, we have allowed them to do business in specific areas in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd Cross Lanes and in Malwatta Road. There will not be any hawkers in the Olcott Mawatha or in the Main Street,” he assured. He added that in Malwatta Road, the CMC has established temporary sheds for those vendors and in all other streets, the CMC has demarcated a line at one side of the pavement for hawkers but only during the festival season. He added that however the vendors have been requesting the CMC to allow them to do business on the pavements permanently which request the CMC has refused.

Perera said that the CMC has taken measures to arrange an alternative space responding to the demands of the vendors. “The President has appointed a committee in this regard. It will decide as to where these people will be allowed to do business and who will be allowed,” he said. Perera assured that after this festival season, they will stop such business activities and shift them to alternative places on which the committee will decide. Even the people from the Floating Market have been complaining and requesting their previous places – however the Floating Market comes under the UDA. He also noted that some owners who have got shops at the Floating Market have rented out their shops and are doing business elsewhere – and there is a huge discrepancy in the manner they operate.

Issuing a clarification, the CMC also stated that they as a policy have not allowed any hawker in the city of Colombo to do business – however exceptions were made during the festival seasons. Accordingly hawkers are allowed to operate in one part of the Main Street, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Cross Streets only in Pettah. According to the CMC, that happened previously as well during the festival seasons – and the decision to allow hawkers to do business in the said area was reached at a meeting held with the President on the 23rd of June this year. The CMC insisted that those hawkers will not be allowed to enter other areas of the city. They regretted for any inconvenience caused to pedestrians due to this temporary arrangement and agreed that the safety of the pedestrians is of the highest priority of the CMC.

Despite the CMC’s stance on the matter, the non-stopped demand of hawkers to come back to pavements has not stopped. The CMC also, allowing them to operate periodically, shows that there is still lot to be done to permanently eradicate this problem. Even though some projects such as the Floating Market were introduced as a solution, vendors are unhappy with the places they have been given.

Earlier Pettah was known as a place where pedestrians were tricked into buying goods for unreasonable prices. They were also at the risk of being victims of pickpockets and snatch thieves. Putting an end to that culture was required from all sides. Therefore creating spaces where public can buy goods leisurely is necessary. However many observe that taking decisions on such projects should be apolitical. They must be taken only by keeping in the mind the benefit they can provide for the people.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, president of the Floating Market Vendors’ Association H.M Piyadasa Silva said that out of over 100 shops at Floating Market, at least 82 shops have been closed down as they did not have any business. “There are days we hardly earn Rs. 100/= and I run the shop at a loss. The shops at the back side of the market were completely out of business. I used to do business in Olcott Mawatha for over 40 years. We were forcibly removed from there and were given shops here. But we do not have business here,” he said. Silva added that for over 9 months, they had been talking to the UDA and various other officials about this matter without success. “If they cannot send us back to the old place, then they should at least implement the second phase of this project and complete the proposed activities. Then we can at least expect some improvements,” he added.

Justin Perera, an apparel vendor at the Floating Market said that he had employed six to seven employees working in the shop but now he looks after the shop as he cannot afford to pay any employee. “Last Sunday I earned only Rs. 300/=. There are some weeks I manage to earn only about Rs. 2000/=. I did business for over 35 years and before I was shifted to this shop, I used to earn about Rs. 30000/= for a day,” he expressed his grievances. He also admitted that beautification of the city is needed – but incomplete and ill-planned these projects cost our business. Besides, he noted that even after spending money on a massive project of that nature, the whole structure has been neglected. “Shops have glass façades. The shops at the backside adjoining the railway line and glasses frequently crack due to vibration. The previous government also spent a lot of money on putting up a big TV screen. It was only used during the elections. Now it does not work,” he complained.

Asanka Sanjeewa, another shop owner at the Floating Market added that his business has dropped significantly. “I used to earn about Rs. 190,000/= monthly when I was at my earlier place but now I earn only about Rs. 30,000/=. We have been talking to UDA about our issues, but we have not received a positive response,” he said. Udaya Kumara, yet another shop owner added that mostly couples come to the Floating Market to spend time. “Even if some people come to buy goods, since an ATM is not available in the vicinity, most of them turn around and go. They do not carry cash nowadays. The toilet in the market closes at 6 pm. Initially we used to keep the shops opened till 11 in the night. But now there is no crowd,” he said.

Sumith Ruwan Prasanna, an employee at a shop in the market, said that he earns a daily wage and it has dropped as the business is suffering. “There are days we hardly sell an item,” he added. Another shop owner Preethi Prasanna said that it is a great space. It is clean and tidy, but it does provide enough businesses for us. “What matters for us is what we earn. No point of having a grand shop in a beautiful location if we do not have business,” he said. According to him initially people opened their shops till late night but now they close by 6 pm as they do not have business. “Most vendors want to go back to previous places. But different governments seem to have different policies. Even if they allow us to go back to previous places now, if the government changes, they will start relocating us back and forth to various other places. Then we will be in more trouble. What we want right now is to improve this location. Otherwise for the government even, it is a waste of money,” he added.

A source from the UDA told The Sunday Leader that the Pettah Floating Market was constructed as part of a master plan – to demolish all the unauthorized shops and relocate those shops and pavement hawkers in an orderly manner in a new location. However, she added that UDA managed to only demolish one segment of the Olcott Mawatha and those shops were relocated at the Floating Market. “The original proposal was to demolish the rest of the shops in the Olcott Mawatha and relocate them in the Chalmers Granaries land. There was a proposal to build a shopping complex in that land. We do not get instructions whether to continue that project,” she added. According to the UDA source, open structures at the Floating Market were given to those who were doing business on the pavements in the Olcott Mawatha and the shops were given to those who had permanent shops there.

However she said that some of the hawkers had gone back to streets to do business as they did not have much business at the Floating Market. “The issue is that the market was only half done. That is the reason for the business failures. If the entire project was completed then the Floating Market would have functioned much better,” she admitted. According to the source, right now people can fulfill their requirements with the remaining shops in the Olcott Mawatha and therefore there is no reason for them to walk into the shops at the Floating Market. She added that if the shops in the entire Olcott Mawatha were demolished and the project was implemented, it would have been a huge success. “Only 1/3 of the shops in Olcott Mawatha were shifted to the Floating Market. The rest was supposed to be shifted to the Chalmers Granaries land as per the initial proposal. We do not know whether those proposed projects will be implemented,” she said.



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