THE Gujarat High Court, on Thursday, castigated the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) for allegedly preventing people from eating non-vegetarian food from street vendors by prohibiting the sale of non-vegetarian food on the streets of the city.
The single-judge bench of Justice Biren Vaishnav remarked:
“You don’t like non-veg food, it is your lookout. How can you decide what people should eat outside? How can you stop people from eating what they want?”
The bench further questioned the possible political motives behind the alleged ban, asking:
“People are selling omelettes, eggs, and overnight you decide to pick them and throw them away because the party in power decides so? Just because the party in power says that it wants people to stop eating eggs, you will pick the food stall owners and throw them away? How dare you discriminate between people? Don’t undertake this drive to satisfy the ego of some people.”
To be clear, some, but not all, of the petitioners, run food carts from which they sell non-vegetarian food, while the other petitioners sell raw or cooked vegetarian food products.
Contentions made before the court
Due to the non-implementation of the Act and the Rules, the petitioners allege that they face unjust and illegal seizures of their carts, equipment, raw materials, and other apparatus at the hands of the AMC, without due process, and in contravention of the scheme of the Act. This, the petitioners allege, is arbitrary, discriminatory, and perverse, and an abrogation of their right to earn a livelihood, as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
The petition pleads that as long as the petitioners, or any other person, don’t violate someone else’s rights or the law, they should be free to produce and sell anything they want to.
The petition also alleges bigotry in the purported singling out of non-vegetarian food vendors, averring that such food has been prepared and sold in the state of Gujarat for centuries and that there is no law that places an embargo on the sale of such food items by street vendors.
The petition prays for a direction to the AMC not to eject any street vendor or impound their equipment in a manner, not in line with that prescribed in the Street Vendors Act and the Rules.
In response, the AMC clarified that it was not acting only against vendors selling non-vegetarian food, and its approach was non-discriminatory. It explained that it had only cleared those vendors who had encroached public roads and caused hindrance to pedestrians and the road traffic. This, it contended, was in consonance with traffic regulations and previous court orders.
However, with regard to non-vegetarian food carts, it remarked that selling non-vegetarian food on the streets creates a health hazard as it is unhygienic, as well as harmful to the environment.
It also assured the High Court that if vendors approached it for the release of their impounded goods and equipment within 24 hours of the seizure, it would deal with them in accordance with the law in an expeditious manner.
The Street Vendors Act, operational since March 2014, was enacted by the Parliament to regulate street vendors in public areas, protect their rights, and balance them with the public’s right to public ways and public spaces. According to a report submitted in August this year by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development, several provisions of the Act are yet to be implemented in most states and union territories. As a result, street vendors across much of the country continue to face harassment and eviction from municipal authorities.
Civil rights activists welcome the High Court’s remarks
Meanwhile, Justice Vaishnav’s censure of the AMC has been welcomed by civil rights activists.
Said activist and lawyer K.R. Koshti: “Even the Gujarat government had earlier clarified that people are free to eat whatever they want. Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees people’s fundamental right to personal liberty, such as what to eat and what to wear. No government has the right to infringe upon people’s right.”
Mujahid Nafees, the convener of the Minority Coordination Committee, said the alleged drive of removing handcarts selling only non-vegetarian food items was another tactic by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government to divide the society based on the food they eat. “I am glad that the court made some scathing remarks on it. Eventually, the AMC had to announce that there was no discrimination,” he added.
Devang Dani, chairman of the AMC’s Town Planning and Estate Committee, last month said carts selling non-vegetarian and egg dishes along the major roads and in a 100-metre radius from schools, colleges, gardens, and religious places will be removed. However, after Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel intervened, Dani clarified that vegetarian food vendors will also face action. “That was an anti-encroachment drive only. There is no question of discrimination. We have removed carts irrespective of the food they were selling,” Dani said on Friday. He said the “anti-encroachment drive” was stopped after a couple of days, and the municipal body at present is not carrying out any such drive against street food carts.