Happy New Year to Hawkers?

There is no greater evil than Anarchy, Sophocles wrote in ancient times.

However, not only do we not take any notice of the wise old Greek, but we seem to have lost our own sense of proportion too. Consequently, we seem hell bent on doing everything to encourage people who are daily defying and breaking several of our laws. The question, however, is hawkers today, but who next?

The year was 1990, and I was on one of my rare visits to Mauritius. My late friend Ram, who worked in Port Louis, had invited me to lunch one weekday at Le Vieux Conseil.

After a long, chatty light meal, we were ambling along SSR Street when we came across half a dozen hawkers plying different wares. Bearing in mind souvenir gifts for friends and relations back home, my eyes fell on a particular young man selling T-Shirts with a Mauritius logo. However when he told me they cost only R60 a piece, I became a bit dubious about the quality. Ram, who had worked in the textile sector when he first returned home after his studies abroad, assured me they were good stuff, except they had been rejected due to minor defects—defects that the untrained eye would hardly see.

Thus goaded by my good friend, I chose 10 T-Shirts of different sizes and colours. I was about to take out my wallet to pay the young man, but before I knew it, he snatched all the T-Shirts from me, put them back in his cardboard box and was gone in a lightning flash — along with all of his five friends. They had sighted some policemen approaching; and they were aware they were in breach of the law!

Anarchy

Today, hawkers hawk in full view — and sometimes with the connivance — of the authorities. For instance, we have the case of the biryani seller, who is camped illegally every day of the week on a parking space in the centre of Quatre Bornes. Inter alia, this man is daily contravening the parking regulations, which allow a maximum 2 hours at any stretch on one spot. Yet, he is not bothered by any one of the several constables who can be seen on that beat.

No doubt emboldened by his presence, two more biryani sellers have installed themselves within yards of him, again illegally on parking spaces meant for motorists who must display a valid parking ticket of R10/R20. Soon they may be joined by halim sellers, kebab merchants and who knows what else. We already have our fair share of professional “working girls” plying their trade along the high street, thank you very much. Other towns/villages are equally affected by the hawking virus, although the situation is a lot worse in Port-Louis where it is estimated there are close to 2k hawkers.

The road to anarchy is not too far away! Because, make no mistake about it, this is utter anarchy by the hawking fraternity; and God knows who/what is waiting round the corner. But how on earth did we ever get here?

Who is responsible?

First in the witness box, we have the authorities (GM, Local Councils, Police) charged with tolerating this flagrant breaking of our laws relating to illegal trading, public order, parking regulations, pollution, food hygiene and more. Why, we recently saw government ministers proudly lining up to be photographed with the hawkers of Port Louis, courtesy of the MBC-TV cameras.

The signal is thus only too clear: It’s all right to break the law, and we are with you! In the process, you can cause as much nerve-wracking nuisance as you like to the public, block the footpath and force them to walk onto the busy road. To hell with the danger to life and limb as people try to dodge you — the hawkers — and run the gauntlet against the snarling road traffic. To hell also with the unhealthy competition faced by shop-owners who, unlike you, have all paid their dues to the public coffers.

We can neither easily get away from the SME mantra that the GM keeps chanting to us every time the question of jobs is mentioned. Not only has it become very mean with recruiting for its own Departments, it also seems to have relinquished all responsibility for employment.

Go create yourself a SME, and do not look to us to give you any hope of a paid job, it seems to say. Go into achard, moolookoo, peanuts, dhool-puri, gato piment, samosa, dress making, and so on ad infinitum. If all else fail, then why, you can always convert yourself into a hawker; the SME par excellence — no form filling, no permit, no rent, no tax to pay. In any case, this may be the only way to sell your manufacture.

Who next?

Against this absurd background, Local Authorities and the Police probably feel totally emasculated and we can understand why they sometimes stand helplessly by and do nothing — they cannot do anything, for heaven’s sake!

There is no greater evil than Anarchy, Sophocles wrote in ancient times. However, not only do we not take any notice of the wise old Greek, but we seem to have lost our own sense of proportion too. Consequently, we seem hell bent on doing everything to encourage people who are daily defying and breaking several of our laws. The question, however, is hawkers today, but who next?

But if the authorities have abdicated their duty, we the buying public are not completely innocent bystanders in this nightmarish scenario. Yes, madam you too, indeed all of us are party to this illicit business! Because if we did not stoop to buy their wares, our hawking friends would soon have to find an alternative occupation to earn a living.

The solution

As long as we have politicians looking in their rear-view mirror for safe deposit vote banks, we are unlikely to see any solution. Indeed given the very myopic view of the political classes of Pleasure Island, by the time we find one, I daresay Sophocles’ Evil would have visited upon us.


PS. I wish a Happy New Year 2014 to everyone. Yes hawkers, too, sir!

 


* Published in print edition on 27 December 2013

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