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Batting for vendors

May 19, 2002
By Raffique Shah

A FRIEND of mine who is a respected economist in the Caribbean was riding with me in my car one day, and as we proceeded up the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway, I had no idea he was noting the number of “hustlers” we encountered at most intersections. He mused (more than asked): “Do you know you can measure the state of the economies of most developing countries by the number of hucksters you encounter at traffic lights?” I was somewhat taken aback since although I knew that our “traffic lights’ posses” were not unique to the world, I thought they had fine-tuned the art of vending-in-traffic to the proverbial “T”.

My friend was serious, though. He cited Mexico and Venezuela as two countries in which the numbers of “traffic lights’ hucksters” would indicate just how serious the imbalances in the distribution of wealth were. It did not matter, he argued, how well an economy was doing, based on the indicators used by economists and the international financial agencies. What one saw at traffic lights, and by extension, roadside vending in general, was evidence of the plight of the poor. “After all, no one would withstand the hot sun or driving rain, not to add huge volumes of carbon monoxide and insults from motorists, if one weren’t desperate,” he said.

By now readers will have guessed that I am addressing the vexing question of roadside vending, and why, in spite of decades of attempts to eradicate what is illegal and most times unsightly, the authorities have failed. The problem of street vending is not new. It did not come with the first oil boom, and it won’t disappear with the next windfall. As far back as in the 1950s, Lord Melody sang “Pedlars”, a humorous calypso on hucksters who sold stolen goods on the sidewalks of Port of Spain. A half-a-century later, governments and municipal corporations are still trying to grapple with the problem.

A little more than a year ago, Chaguanas Mayor Orlando Nagassar moved with the big stick, and with the full backing of the Basdeo Panday government, he cleared hundreds of vendors who had made the Chaguanas Main Road their home. Last week it was the turn of Port of Spain Mayor Murchinson Brown who let loose the “government boots” and had vendors scampering and bawling and threatening as he sought to clear the streets of illegal vendors. Ironically, the affected vendors decided to take up their plight with Panday. The ex-Prime Minister exacted some political mileage from his meeting with the “victims”, but he was very careful not to come out in support of illegal vending.

As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, illegal roadside vending is not the result of people who can do better for themselves, but who choose instead to make life hell for pedestrians and motorists in our cities, towns and highways. Most vendors engage in such taxing activities through sheer necessity. They do not have jobs, they do not have the capital necessary to own or rent business space, and they are prepared to brave the elements and the authorities to put bread on their tables, to feed their hungry children, to support extended families in extreme cases.

Sure they prove to be a nuisance to motorists and pedestrians. Because of vendors, and now a stupid traffic plan, I have not driven through the main streets of Chaguanas during the daytime for many years. And in Port of Spain I never venture to drive up or down streets like Charlotte, Henry, Frederick and Queen. In fact, even walking through these streets, with vendors occupying most of the pavements, one has to dodge traffic. Too, many vendors are plain nasty: they keep their surroundings “in a state”, and leave their waste wherever they feel.

But they are human beings, citizens of the country (although I understand many of our Caricom cousins abuse the situation as well) who seek only to make a living in a lawful manner. These are the people who are not accounted for when the IMF or the Central Bank compiles the GDP and GNP statistics. They fit neither among the unemployed nor the employed. In other words, they are all but invisible-except to the municipal authorities and the police. And while some of us may deem them “pests”, do we make realistic proposals for mitigating their plights if not solving the problem?

I do not see why, both in Chaguanas and Port of Spain, vendors cannot be allowed to sell on certain streets on specific days. In Port of Spain, for example, the entire downtown section of the city could be transformed into a street mall on, say, Saturdays and Sundays. The same could be done in Chaguanas, San Fernando, and other towns that shoppers flock to. That would allow merchants to have their full rights for at least five days a week, especially as it relates to receiving stocks. For two days a week, they share the road with vendors...and I’m sure they’ll benefit from the human traffic that would flow past their doors.

To attempt to put vendors in areas where shoppers do not frequent is to invite them to continue breaking the law. They will not be shoved into parts of cities and towns that are void of human traffic. And even though Chaguanas Mayor Nagassar may claim a measure of victory over the vendors, he and I know that many of these hucksters still operate there, albeit more cautiously. The big stick will not work. The problem will only subside for a while and then return with a vengeance.

While I’m batting for vendors, though, I need to point out that once they choose to become mini-businessmen and women, they must also be innovative in their quest to “make an honest living”. Over the past 10 years or so, I have noted the return of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who peddle goods up and down the country—on foot. It was from among that crop of foot—salesmen of yesteryear that many of today’s bigger businesses were born. Today, again I see young Syrians and Lebanese men hoist their bundles of goods on their shoulders and trek through the countryside seeking sales. Soon, they will own vehicles, then stores.

Why can’t our vendors do likewise? Don’t tell me it’s hard work walking for miles in distant towns and villages! Earning a livelihood has never been easy. If the authorities want to sweep you off the streets, then go to your customers directly. Maybe if our vendors adopt that approach to business they’d soon be laughing at the authorities— from the comfort of air-conditioned stores.

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