Bilaspur, July 2002. ‘Myriad homes cramped together on city perimeters, a myriad of workshops in their midst, armies of vendors hawking their wares on the streets…all seem to have sprung from nowhere.’ (De Soto 2002.)

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto's description of Lima and other Peruvian cities applies with remarkable ease to a slum a half-world away. Like other slums and shantytowns across the third world, Chingrajpara’s growth has happened through a process of accretion, led by wave upon wave of migrant.

As De Soto argues, Chingrajpara the slum, far from being an unattractive side-effect of urbanization is the site of the creative and entrepreneurial energies of the dispossessed and the resource-less. Fleeing from droughts or brought in by the promise of a better livelihood, the migrants have built Chingrajpara and their own lives from whatever meager raw materials their environment offered them.

The vendors and hawkers are the lynchpin of the slum’s homespun economy – the circulatory channels of the retail system, reaching goods and services to its most unreachable corners. Operating on small capital outlays, these petty retailers offer a humbling portrait of entrepreneurship in action, sight unseen by the state.

I. From ‘regular’ to ‘irregular’ employment

Within the occupational structure of the slum, vending often represents a desirable step up. Consider the Singh family. Of the three Singh brothers, the older two started out with ‘regular’ jobs. The eldest, Vidyanand, a class eleven passout, was the first to arrive in Bilaspur some fifteen years ago with a class IV state government position; the middle one, Gajanand, ‘matric’, a class ten graduate, followed to work in a grocery store. The youngest Vishnu, also a class eleven graduate first stayed back to work on the family’s six acres near Takhatpur and later found work in Raipur in a cloth shop. But now, all three vend vegetables in Mopka village, four kilometers away at the city’s outskirts.

It started when Vidyanand lost his job. Looking for a way to fill the gap, he discovered the Sanichari, Bilaspur's wholesale vegetable market. His first attempt was to enter the highly attractive market of Nehru Nagar, a colony set up for the officers and managers of the South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL). However the entry pass needed to operate in Nehru Nagar proved elusive. After a few other false turns, Vidyanand landed in Mopka village and was doing well enough to tempt Gajanand to quit his own job and join his brother on his daily afternoon round in Mopka. A few years later, Vishnu arrived with his wife to join in the family business. By now Vidyanand and Gajanand had made an important fixed capital outlay – they owned their own carts - and were participating in the daily auctions at Sanichari, aided partly by a brother-in-law who happens to be a wholesaler's commission agent.

Thakurs by caste, the Singh brothers belong to the tiny minority of higher castes in the slum. Meeting all of them together proved a challenge. When I finally ran into Vidyanand I asked him about his chosen occupation. He had not a few complaints - too much physical hard work, he said, seasonal demand uncertainties and a long walk to their market. But their success is evident - everyday the brothers make total purchases at the Sanichari of up to Rs 700, and have a steady business volume through regular customers. Most of all, the flexibility of operations allows them to retain substantial links to their family farm. Every year during the harvest season they are able to abandon their market site and return to their village to tend to their extensive "canal - irrigated" farm holdings, where they grow rice and wheat staples.

II. From season to season

For other vendors, riding the seasonal crests and troughs requires an elaborate business plan. Vijay Kumar Sahu (Slum Diaries I) has three products for the three seasons – through the winter his cart sells roasted groundnuts, a popular snack across North India; in the summer, he sells flavoured ice, a homely substitute for ice-cream; and during a brief monsoon season he sells jamun or blackberries. Sometimes he mixes in bhutta or corn on the cob, a popular post-monsoon snack. On average, he says, he makes daily earnings up to Rs 70; profit margins on the short-lived jamun are often bigger.

However the logistics of finding a steady market are challenging. The busier areas are often out of bounds for mobile vendors like Vijay Kumar – he has already been fined a couple of times by the traffic police for causing congestion near the bus stand. And this is despite the daily road tax of Rs 5 he and other mobile vendors pay to the municipal corporation.

Vijay Kumar is not the only one to have been cited by the traffic police. Ramlal Sahu who hails from a family of landless labourers all the way from Banda district in Uttar Pradesh and has made Bilaspur his home for the past 25 years was also fined twice near his permanent stall at the SECL colony gates.

Despite these occasional lapses however, Ramlal has done for himself. In Bilaspur’s relatively relaxed regulatory environment – the signs of prosperity in his house are everywhere. A 27” television set reposes on a cabinet in the makeshift living room and more unusually a music system with speakers, bought on installments, explains Ramlal’s wife. Ramlal’s eldest son has also acquired a mobile cart recently and joined the family business – again with seasonal products. And all this despite Ramlal’s recent alcohol-induced illness for which the family had to borrow nearly Rs 7000 against their savings from their chit fund group. As unlikely as he is in the role, Ramlal is a self-made man.

III. From drought to uncertain plenty

Like many of those who call Chingrajpara their home, Kishen Yadav (Slum Diaries – I) was driven here by a severe drought that made a livelihood in his ancestral village of Tedhadhavra near Mungeli block in Bilaspur district near impossible. Over the twenty-five years that he has been here, Kishen has along with his wife Kumari built a three room pucca house in Chingrajpara, the title to which he owns. The three eldest of their children go to school, including thirteen year old Lata, another nine-year old daughter in class four and a son in class two. The other two children are too young for school. And what’s more Kishen has even acquired a saving account in a Sahara India scheme into which he deposits a monthly Rs 300.

While small town Bilaspur continues to accommodate the bewildering variety of informal activities within its boundaries, these small-scale entrepreneurs are still the most expendable in periods of growth.
A painfully thin man with one bad eye, Yadav was a rickshaw driver for the first fifteen odd years of his life in Bilaspur. Over time he began to lose sight in one eye; and then in the other. That was when he joined Kumari in her line of work. He and Kumari buy the day’s stock at the Sanichari market - some Rs 300-400 worth, part of which they often sell off to other vendors since their own requirements are too small for wholesale quantities. Then at noon they set up their wares in Amariya Chowk, a short distance from the Sanichari. Though they are there till late night, 10-11 pm, they don’t always manage to sell all their stock. The next day early at seven o’clock, Kumari goes for a morning round with Lata to sell vegetables left over from the previous day. On average they manage to earn Rs 50-60, says Kumari; Rs 100-150, says Kishen.

Yet the Sanichari’s move from one end of the Arpa-spanning Rapta bridge to the other has affected their business in a direction quite contrary to that of the wholesale traders (Slum Diaries IV). Earlier the roughly one kilometre distance between the wholesale market and Amariya Chowk where they set up shop was a guarantee of good sales. Now that they are located so close to the wholesale market they earn much less on average.

And then there is the weather. In the summer, they must brave the sun’s fury and during the monsoons, the deluge. Seasonal fluctuations in supply are the other source of uncertainty.

But there is a more serious threat in sight. The road is being widened and the local shopkeepers are eager to chase away roadside vendors. Kishen and Kumari have already changed location a couple of times and their present location near a dirty nalla (drain) is bad for sales.

In Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta, these roadside retailers would no doubt have suffered the zeal of municipal beautification drives at one time or another. While small-town Bilaspur continues to accommodate the bewildering variety of informal activities within its boundaries in almost benign neglect, these small-scale entrepreneurs are still the most expendable in periods of growth. An international alliance of hawkers and vendors has tried to establish however that the carts and stalls that make for the hustle and bustle of third world cities are not weeds (with all its accompanying terminology of eradication), but the bounteous crop of the labour and aspirations of the urban poor. From a policy perspective this is perhaps the needed shift.