Dinesh Kumar Dixit is known as a “rehri-patri walla,” or street vendor. He has spent the past 42 years in New Delhi selling the glass bangles that are a specialty of Firozabad, his hometown in the Uttar Pradesh state of India.
For most of that time Dinesh was at the mercy of the police, local authorities, and the municipality of New Delhi. Government officials would either evict vendors or harass them to extract bribes. The average bribe was equivalent to US$4 a month, but for Delhi’s 600,000 street vendors that was $28.8 million a year extracted from the poorest residents of the nation’s capital by crooked officials.
“The police would come take my stuff and fine me. I’d refuse to pay bribes and they’d confiscate my stuff. I felt helpless and had no voice to fight the system, but I continued my struggle,” Dinesh said.
That changed with the Street Vendors Act, giving legal status and rights to the entrepreneurs. Dinesh’s business has grown, and he is an elected member of the Town Vending Committee in New Delhi, sitting across from police officers who once beat him up and harassed him.
A family effort
When Dinesh first moved to Delhi, he had no money and slept on footpaths.
His knowledge of bangles was the only way he knew how to make a living. He loaned out his wife’s jewelry for 28,000 rupees, or roughly $400 USD, and started a small street vending business as a bangle seller.
Then for decades, Dinesh and millions of other street vendors like him were at the mercy of corrupt local authorities.
I have maintained a record of every single fine/challan (ticket) that I have paid for the last  years,” Dinesh said.
Beatings, fines, destroyed goods, and bribes all began going away when groundbreaking legislation was passed to protect the rights of street vendors across India. The new law’s implementation in the area of New Delhi in which Dinesh sold his bangles allowed him to grow his business and become a respected member of the community.
“When the new act came out, I felt empowered,” Dinesh said. “I felt like, ‘Now I have strength,’ and with strength there has been a change in the way I think.”
He went from worrying about his ability to feed his family to seeing all street vendors as colleagues. He works to improve their lives, sleeping with his shoes on so he can move quickly if needed by another vendor.
Dinesh considers himself very fortunate. His family has been his most important source of support and comfort. His inspiration and success came from his wife, who passed away in 2015. The business he started with a loan on her jewelry has allowed him to provide a home he shares with his son, daughter-in-law, nephews, and three grandkids.
Every morning the family prays and enjoys a hearty meal together before Dinesh heads out for work. He still opens his bangle shop daily in the same market, Sarojini Nagar Babu Market in New Delhi. His son runs it with him, so he is freer to work for the whole vendor community.
Corrupt authorities once preyed on India’s 10 million street vendors. The 600,000 vendors in New Delhi, alone, weren’t treated fairly by authorities and weren’t protected by the law.
That changed with the Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending Act, commonly shortened to the Street Vendors Act. The act secured the rights of street vendors to earn a living and helped foster an environment in which local authorities found it tougher to harass or evict them. While the act has yet to be fully implemented across India, the successful implementation in New Delhi has forever changed Dinesh’s life, and it stands to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands like him.
The efforts of the Centre for Civil Society, a New Delhi-based non-profit, were instrumental in advancing the legislation.
The act also provides for the establishment of Town Vending Committees that look into matters affecting street vendors. Representatives, such as Dinesh, are elected to the committee to address issues including new locations for vending zones and identifying vendors.
Dinesh’s old friends at the market often refer to his success as “Farsh se Arsh tak”—meaning “from floor to sky”—because he went from sitting on the floor and selling bangles to having a seat at the table with local authorities.
Dinesh has also found purpose in his elected position. As a member of his Town Vending Committee, he devotes his time to improving the lives of other vendors. The same local authorities who wouldn’t listen to him years ago now listen as Dinesh challenges them on important issues.
“I feel empowered and now, with the support of other vendors, I too have a voice in the system,” he said.
That voice is thanks to the work of the Centre for Civil Society in passing the Street Vendors Act.
At age 64, Dinesh has plans. He wants to run for office as a member of the legislative assembly, or MLA, in New Delhi. “If the chaiwala [tea seller] can be the Prime Minister of India, why can’t a chudiwala [bangle seller] be an MLA?” Dinesh asked.
Street vendors such as Dinesh deserve to earn a livelihood with dignity. Respecting and protecting India’s entrepreneurs opened opportunities that will change lives for generations.
To support causes like Dinesh’s and other similar Dignity Unbound projects around the world, please visit https://dignityunbound.org/donate.