People, 'De Facto' use of Urban Spaces and Vulnerabilities
The use of urban, rural as well as tourist sites for business purposes has seen an exponential growth during the past few years and constitutes a major component of the informal economy. For the convenience of this study, these spaces have been categorized into three sections based on their legal status: legal, de facto or semi-legal spaces. Spaces where the occupants possess deeds and legal contracts will be defined as legal spaces whilst de facto spaces denote the exact opposite of the given definition and semi-legal spaces will be defined as spaces where the occupants have to register at a municipal council or make a monthly payment to government institutions for using spaces belonging to the government.
Currently, urban spaces are being excessively used as informal income earning avenues by a diverse range of people; men, women, adults, youth, -children, abled, disabled, residents and migrants alike. Street vendors who establish eateries and mini-shops where they sell toys, plastic wares, telephone equipment, fruits, fish, vegetables, wall hangers, incense sticks, camphor by the roadside and pedestrians, railway platforms etc. contribute to the congestion and chaos of the city. Prostitution also thrives; pedestrians on the roadsides stand in disguise, holding babies in their arms and try to attract prospective customers. Meanwhile beggars, who sit by the roadsides or get into buses in search of a living, use urban spaces as a mode to earn an income.
Moreover, certain vendors apply an enormous amount of creativity to attract consumers. For instance there are groups who utilize stacks of old newspaper to make wonderful handicrafts such as flowers, trees and ladders. Some others sell incense sticks, pictures for school children’s scrap books, General Knowledge books, ephemerides etc.
Furthermore, there are quite a few semi-legal spaces within junctions and roadsides where three-wheel drivers and mini-lorry owners have been allowed by the government to sell food. Therefore, they have been able to extend their autonomy as they have been registered in relevant government bodies and have therefore received a certain level of legitimacy. In this scenario, it is important to note that they are either occupants of de facto or semi-legal spaces and their livelihoods or incomes remain highly vulnerable and unstable. Especially under recent development initiatives both these groups have been expelled from their traditional places and have had to grapple with the issue of making a steady income.
First, we need to understand why people end up with such sporadic jobs. For instance, a few vendors at Delkanda fair used the roads to make an extra living during weekends and went back to their villages to run their cottage businesses such as making incense sticks. Recently they were moved into permanent spaces by the government. Some of the three-wheel drivers also said that they ran their three-wheelers after work to make extra money. They attributed this to the rise in living costs in the recent past that had made it increasingly difficult for them to educate their children and maintain the economic stability on the home front. In contrast to this there are some people who are permanently involved in the informal sector and use it as their major source of income.
Moreover, there are groups of beggars who have opted for that way of life. A lack of access to mainstream markets also compel these groups to find alternative ways to sell their products. Especially the vendors in Delkanda Street Market come from distant areas such as Wellawaya, Ampara in order to sell their vegetable and fruit harvests because they find it hard to access mainstream markets. However, when you converse with them it is clear that many of them do not prefer their children pursuing the same job. There is a sense of frustration on their part for failing to do well in education due to many reasons ranging from economic, and cultural barriers to ignorance. It is noteworthy that many of the street vendors are dissatisfied with their jobs due to the harsh and unstable conditions they have to undergo. Meanwhile, the three-wheel drivers also believe that running their own three-wheel makes them feel more independent than engaging in other jobs.
Nevertheless, these jobs are extremely unstable and uncertain as they occupy the urban spaces which are not owned by them. There have been occasions when street vendors have been chased away by the municipalities. Meanwhile, in terms of prostitutes there is a great danger of being arrested by police and chased by people in the area as it still remains a taboo in Sri Lankan Society. What many people do not notice is that the prostitutes also provide an essential service to the society and it is crucial to provide them with safety and security. Thus, it is important to explore not only their issues related to economic securitization but also social and health securitization.
The paradox of ‘legal spaces’ that are used for businesses will not always be directed towards the ‘legal’ means of income earning. However, another aspect that we tend to forget is the close link between the people and the de facto occupants of urban spaces. Though street vendors would appear to be a menace, they are still a part and parcel of our everyday life. Street shops are easily accessible, and they provide cheap as well as rare products such as home-made, organic products which are much more nutritious than the products in the super markets. We should also re-think how dull our life would be if we do not get to buy some edibles on our way back home in the evenings from the regular wade, kadala or achcharu vendors.
As mentioned above, those who occupy semi-legal spaces enjoy a certain level of state patronage whilst the others in de facto spaces do not have any form of legitimacy. Thus, it is important to incorporate the needs of both the groups in urban designing plans and establishing employment security networks such as proper registration processes, labor laws, loan schemes and other relevant benefits that any other employer would enjoy.
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