Street Vendors, Vegetable Sellers: The Secret Millionaires of India

Srinagar: A group of people in the city of Kanpur have recently been outed as secret millionaires.

Instead of donning fancy business suits or expensive watches, however, these people spend their days selling food, fruits or vegetables on the streets, while others are owners of small pharmacy shops, grocers, ragpickers, and sanitation workers.

The Income Tax (IT) department has identified over 250 street food vendors and scrap dealers who have managed to evade taxes for years, according to a report by the Vice.

These secret millionaires altogether saved up and spent more than 37.5 million Indian rupees ($503,947) to buy properties, according to IT Department.

The department also found that several scrap dealers owned at least three cars and many also bought large swathes of agricultural land in rural areas surrounding Kanpur.

But their secret dealings were discovered only when the IT department conducted an investigation using big data software.

They found that hundreds of these millionaires had not paid any taxes beyond their GST registration while at least 65 grocery store owners and pharmacists had not even registered their businesses on the GST records.

While some covered up their millions by investing in property under the names of various family members, others relied on cooperative banks and small finance schemes that they believed could hide their money trail, writes Vice’s Shamani Joshi.

But they were caught after someone used details from their PAN card, an identification number assigned to all taxpayers in India, a misstep that spiralled into hundreds of tax evaders getting caught.

However, street hawking is neither easy, nor lucrative. Often, street vendors toil for more than 12 hours a day and regularly face class bias, bureaucratic harassment, and eviction threats.

They are often expected to dole out bribes to local authorities to keep their businesses going.

“[Municipal corporation] officials conduct surprise raids,” Hari Pujan, a fruit seller, told The Guardian, explaining how bribes have threatened his business.

“Sometimes if I am lucky, I move my fruit cart and hide in the narrow lane before the officials arrive.”

In fact, street vendors have been some of the most impacted by the pandemic, as lockdowns threatened their livelihood.

Although the Indian government passed the Street Vendors Act in 2014 to protect hawkers who did not have a permanent shop, they continue to deal with issues like harassment and licence caps.

In Mumbai, for example, authorities have given out only 15,000 licences despite having around 250,000 street vendors, who were then forced to sell their wares, the Vice story adds.

With more than 600,000 people in the business, street vendors form an essential and legitimate part of India’s urban retail trade and distribution system.

They represent 4% of the urban workforce across India and provide daily necessities to the general public. They have an approximate parallel turnover of 800 million Indian rupees (about $10 million) a day, with most supporting an average of three other people as employees or partners.

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