As I walked past through what amounted to a maze and thicket of shops, badly parked cars and rediwallas( street vendors of Kashmir), an elderly man with a wavy beard wearing a Muslim skull cap sought my attention by waving at me. “Huzoor(sir), what do you do,” he asked? An in your face question, by a random stranger, took me aback. I looked intently at the elderly gentleman. There was a certain radiance about his face; the flowing beard made his visage graceful. I gathered myself and responded, “ I am a writer”. His face beamed and he said, “You are the one I am looking for”. ” Look at our plight. We are not a rich people. We earn our daily bread by dint of sheer hard work and cater to a need but yet the government is hounding us, ‘he added in a bleak and grim voice. “Please write about us”, the elderly man beseeched me. Moved by the plea, I responded by saying that I’d do what I could.
In essence, shorn of accretions, the elderly man, who conversed and pleaded with me , was a component of what could be called the “ Wal Mart” of sorts of Kashmir. Readers might throw up their arms and protest that the parallel I am drawing is a stretch. But, consider the factual: Walmart, stripped to basics is a large sourcing and retailing firm, that on account of its size utilizes economies of scale, and caters to diverse market segments, including those whose purchasing power is limited and restricted. Walmart then is in the nature of a one stop shop which caters to the differential needs of different market segments. Walmart raises finance in a sophisticated way; its financial and strategic and operational management techniques are tied to its business model, which in combination allow the mega firm to deliver superior returns, but more importantly, products at reasonable price points. My readers might assert that given Walmart’s sophistication, scale and reach, the parallel I drew with the rediwallas of Kashmir is fundamentally flawed. I would defend myself and assert that mine is a quasi- parallel. If Walmart is a one stop shop for almost everything, our rediwallas are a “one stop stretch”. That is, while they do not and cannot take recourse to economies of scale, but their sourcing, in terms of, procuring products , while not giving them bargaining power over supplies, allows the rediwallas to sell and cater to market segments whose purchasing power is low. This market segment constitutes a vast class in Kashmir who obtain relief through the services and products of rediwallas. These micro micro-enterprises then address a genuine need and thus demand in our society. The relation of this class with the rediwallas is symbiotic; both benefit. But, the administration is hell bent on squeezing and pushing them out of sight, for ease of commute of people, lesser traffic hassles and perhaps even aesthetics. It is a statement of fact that rediwallas like all big business establishments take recourse to what may be called clustering- a vertical integration of sorts in terms of retailing. Clustering by rediwallas means creating an effect and structure where a fruit vendor sits astride a vegetable vendor, a shawl vendor with a sweater vendor, a shoe seller with a socks vendor and so on. This clustering makes it easy for consumers and customers to shop at what I have called a “one shop stretch”. But, the problem or issue is that clustering by rediwallas takes place in locales like bus stations and similar locations. This leads to cloistered and choked urban spaces, traffic snarls and other forms of congestion.
But, the question is: is the urban mess that accrues really the fault of our rediwallas?
No is the clear answer.
The fault lies with poor urban design and utility of urban spaces, the management of these spaces and the politics of patronage. While the issue then is essentially bad and poor policy, the price is paid by the poor who are already vulnerable on account of income volatility and variability – all overlaid by political uncertainty. All this is in the nature of a travesty because the poor rediwallas , are the real entrepreneurs of Kashmir. They battle against structural inequalities embedded in the political economy of Kashmir, non-existent availability of finance( banks don’t even look at them), the hostility of administrations, corruption, bad weather and climate and the political uncertainty in/of Kashmir. Yet, despite these structural obstacles, they persist and earn their daily bread, amidst horrid conditions. Our rediwallas are our heroic entrepreneurs who must not only be supported by society but acclaimed by them. But, in reality, their saga is that of trials and tribulations.
Returning to the immediate issue of a squeeze and pressure by the government on the rediwallas, what can be done to resolve the issue? One measure that stares us in the face is to make rediwallas bankable. That is, devise measures and schemes that allow them access to some form of credit. A leaf can be taken out of the Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto’s analyses and prescriptions and the “Dead capital “ of rediwallas made alive, so to speak. Another would be to give them platforms to display and sell their products. I have in mind here aggregating the businesses of our rediwallas and make them the actual Walmart of Kashmir. This can be done by designated spaces where there is a flow of people and where clustering would work. All this could be supplemented by according our rediwallas some basic business and financial education. As far I can tell, our rediwallas are instinctive business men; while they don’t have fancy degrees but they understand their markets astutely and ably and cater to diverse segments but upgrading and refining their business skills would go far. Instead of squeezing them out and making them invisible, the rediwallas of Kashmir deserve encouragement and support. But, the administration instead of seeing value in them is bent on distressing them. Alas!
—The author can be reached at: [email protected]