Street Businesses in Kathmandu: Crushed by the Pandemic, Evicted by the State
Street businesses provide employment opportunities to a large number of people, especially to the immigrants in urban areas, and at the same time, subsidizes the cost of living of the urban poor by selling goods at comparatively low price (Bhowmik, 2005; Bhowmik, 2010). Street businesses in Nepal occupy 3.87 percent of informal sector enterprises and employ 1.4% of labour force (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2021), with a significant participation of women (Sharma and Pradhan, 2017). Considering the important functions of street businesses in the urban economy, this study, based on in-depth interviews with the owners of 30 purposively-selected street businesses in Kathmandu and key informant interviews with two street vendor union leaders, a Kathmandu Metropolitan City Superintendent of Police, and two experts on the field of urban and labour economics, analyses three key issues: the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the effects of lockdown measures and social distancing rules imposed by the local authority, on street businesses in Kathmandu; the evolving relationship between state and street businesses; and the coping strategies adopted by street businesses for their survival.
This study finds that many of the migrants operating street businesses in the city returned to their home districts during the pandemic, where they relied on mainly agriculture and other alternatives such as daily wage jobs for earning livelihood. The remaining households, who had been surviving on the income generated from street businesses, experienced disproportionate impact on sales and profit, depending on the type of street business (market vendors/street vendors/hawkers) and the type of commodity or service traded. Many of them drew upon their little savings, cut down their level of consumption, took loan mostly from friends or relatives or local moneylenders, and resorted to other comparatively less remunerative occupation to cope with the grim situation brought by the pandemic. Unfortunately, there was little relief support, if any, from the state.
Meanwhile, the relationship between state and street businesses in many cities in Asia, including Kathmandu, is characterised by heated conflict, especially over the use of public space (Bhowmik, 2005), which was more pronounced during the pandemic (WIEGO, 2022). Most of the interviewed street vendors and hawkers stated that they faced evictions either themselves or have seen their fellow friends evicted along with confiscation of goods, which has become more rampant following the pandemic and the election of the new Mayor in the town. While the number of street businesses seems not to have fallen with the police action, the willingness to carry on with the business on the part of street vendors despite the risk of losing the entire investments any time indicates some genuine compulsion on the part of the street vendors, which the state has failed to pay heed to.
This study, therefore, finds that street businesses in Kathmandu were resilient enough to survive the pandemic all on their own with little external support, through the adoption of welfare-reducing strategies of reducing consumption, exhausting savings, and resorting to borrowings. To make matters worse, the state policy of ‘informalizing’ street businesses through blanket prohibition (Graaff and Ha, 2015), overlooking the root causes of their rise (such as urban poverty, unemployment, underemployment, rising cost of living, and centralised development), further crushed the pandemic-struck sector.
Bhowmik, S. K. (2005). Street Vendors in Asia: A Review. Economic and Political Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.epw.in/journal/2005/22-23/review-labour-review-issues-specials/street-vendors-asia-review.html
Bhowmik, S. (2010). Introduction. In S. Bhowmik (Ed.), Street Vendors in the Global Urban Economy (pp. 1-19). Routledge Taylor & Francis.
Central Bureau of Statistics (2021). National Economic Census 2018 Analytical Report: Informal Sector. Kathmandu: Central Bureau of Statistics.
Graaff, K. and Noa Ha (2015). Introduction. In K. Graaff and Noa Ha (Ed.), Street Vending in the Neoliberal City: A Global Perspective on the Practices and Policies of a Marginalized Economy (pp. 1-15). Berghahn Books.
Sharma, P., and Pradhan, P. K. (2017). The Petty Street Vendors and their Livelihoods of the Kathmandu Valley Cities, Nepal. In A. Li, W. Deng, & W. Zhao, Land Cover Change and its Eco-environmental Responses in Nepal (pp. 359-379). Singapore: Springer. WIEGO. (2022). COVID-19 and Informal Work in 11 Cities: Recovery Pathways Amidst Continued Crisis. WIEGO Working Paper No. 43. Manchester, UK: WIEGO.