One of the dramatic changes to Port Louis over the past two years has inevitably been the relocation of hawkers from the streets to the three hawkers' zones, namely Immigration Square, Decaën and Monneron. The folkloric or chaotic - depending on what side of the debate you lie - scenes of pavements and streets of Port Louis, clogged by hawkers and pedestrians alike, are no more. Weekly senses the mood in Port Louis ahead of the festive season.
The first thing the hawkers we meet tell us is they now make fewer sales than when they were on the street. "My situation is now 100 per cent different from previously," says Mohamad Eshan Ramzan who was previously selling kids' clothing at Sir Robert Farquhar Street, a few hundred metres away from his new location. Mamaud Chowy, who moved from the Royal Road to Immigration Square two years ago, and Noorezia and Farad, who were both located at Immigration Square, close to Farquhar Street, corroborate Ramzan's claims. "We make fewer sales here, even in December. The government knew that by sending us here, we'd be in trouble."
Another concern of the hawkers we met is insecurity. Ramzan argues that the fact that methadone - a substitution drug - is distributed by the health authorities at the Trou Fanfaron police station is adversely affecting his already-meagre sales. "People are scared to come. There's no rush despite the end of year." Noorezia and Farad on the other hand do not keep their goods on site overnight due to the lack of security. "People sleep here at night; they pee and even defecate here. The authorities should lock the site at night," they suggest.
The hawkers also blame the facilities available. "When it rains, water floods everything. Moreover the fair is meant to host 279 hawkers; there are more than 400 of us working here at the moment", posits Farad. "The City Council doesn't enforce space allocation; fights arise between hawkers over lack of space. The Lord Mayor can't show his face here!" adds a vehement Chowy.
What about the announced revamp of the Immigration Square by the former minister of local government, Anwar Husnoo? "We've seen nothing coming!" says Chowy. "We were told this would be a temporary solution, we are yet to see any new, modern hawkers' area at Immigration Square", contend Noorezia and Farad.
Chowy wishes to conclude by conceding that he agrees with the relocation concept: "Discipline was needed. But I disagree with the way the relocation has been done."
Moving to Decaën, we get the same feeling of dissatisfaction. Nawaz Thodadin and Alvin Sookun both declare: "Our turnover has plummeted; Christmas won't change anything to it." Thodadin goes into details: "We used to make from Rs4000 to Rs5000 a day previously; now we make only Rs600 or Rs700. Our stall cost us about Rs5000 to build. Toilet facilities are available, but they are in a filthy condition. When it rains, the smell is unbearable; you have branches falling off and taking down our tents." The 52-year-old, like Chowy earlier, agrees that the hawkers were illegally on the streets before; he nonetheless opposes the relocation scheme.
Mariam at Decaën since April 2016, echoes vandalism reports from hawkers at Immigration Square. "Some hawkers leave their goods on site overnight; I don't. People break into the site at night. They sleep here and use our stalls as toilets. We have to clean up in the morning. There are no bins inside but at least there is water supply."
Regarding a new hawker's zone at Victoria station, Alvin says: "The authorities are keeping us in limbo. The upgrading of Victoria Station with a hawkers' zone hasn't materialised. We're not sure what will happen to us when the Metro Express is here. All we want is a good location" This specific feeling of uncertainty, especially in the light of the government announcement in August that the Metro Express would go through the Decaën site is shared by all the hawkers interviewed there.
At Monneron, located across Victoria station, 59-year-old Georgette confides that she had initially moved to Monneron, but since no one knew about the place, she was struggling to sell anything. In November 2016, she moved back to Immigration Square, but the City Council sent her a letter asking for her to return to Monneron which she did last month only. The council has since pulled down the wall which was hiding the site from the crowd [The Monneron site is now visible from the motorway next to Victoria station]. "The number of customers has grown since; but it is too soon to tell whether this coming festive season will be a good one," says a shy Georgette. The latter however draws our attention to the fact that she is not in the place allocated to her as hers is already taken by other hawkers. "The Council is presently rehabilitating part of the Monneron site, and hawkers from the area under rehabilitation are currently squatting in my place. If the rightful owners of the place where I currently am turn up and claim it, I don't know what I'll do".
Other hawkers come to meet us. One of them is Mamad Sahobooa, 54 and hawker at Decaën for the past two years. "I had been at Monneron for more than 30 years, but I was then moved to Decaën." Both Georgette and Mamad however agree that Monneron is a better location in terms of crowds than Decaën. The hawkers there however complain that the site is a flooding-prone area. The market fair also turns into a prostitution hot spot at night according to them. "We often find condoms; people pee and defecate here."
Shoppers and pedestrians' view
At a stall selling towels at Immigration Square, we came across Dacelle Perrine, a bus conductor at Triolet Bus Service. "I usually shop in Grand Bay where I live, but going to the shops can take more time than buying from hawkers," says the 37-year-old who adds, "Hawkers also offer convenience. In addition, everyone's looking to make ends meet."
Deeyah, a 45-year-old customer, who came down from Curepipe with her whole family for some end-of-year shopping and whom we met at Decaën declares, "It's our first time here. It's good but there's room for improvement. It's a bit tight here."
We also interviewed passers-by on John Kennedy Street. "Port Louis is less obstructed now; there's more room to walk," argue Darshinee, 19, and Tarrinee, 18, two shoppers from Curepipe. Shopper Marie May adds, "Port Louis used to be chaotic; since the hawkers have been moved, the streets are less obstructed. The city is now tidier."
Darshinee and Tarrinee nonetheless acknowledge that with hawkers on the streets, it was easier for them to spot what was on offer. "Now we have to walk around more to find what we need in shops. Hawkers were selling at a cheaper price than shops and the quality was still good. Besides, hawkers had a greater variety of products." The pair says they have never been to the new Decaën site, "We don't even know where it is!" Marie May, on the other hand, has been to both Decaën and Immigration Square. "Everyone should be working," she gives in.
Fadil Hossen, a 31-year-old shopkeeper at Farquhar Street says, "our sales have gone down by 25 to 30 per cent since the hawkers have left. We are wholesale importers, and hawkers used to buy part of our stock for resale. Besides, hawkers had an enormous crowd-pulling effect. People from the countryside would come to Port Louis as they knew they would get goods for cheap. Now people don't see the point of travelling to Port Louis anymore. They'd rather go to a market fair in their area."
Wendy, 35, a salesgirl at a clothes shop on Sir Célicourt Antelme Street: "With hawkers, customers used to walk around. Now, people don't even come to Port Louis. Look around you, it's Saturday and it's dead! We get customers during the week when offices are open."
Another shopkeeper at Victoria Square, who asked to remain anonymous, confirms that business has now slowed down. "Hawkers attracted crowds; they used to be my customers too. I wasn't one of those asking for hawkers to leave; I'm actually for allowing them to return. You've got to let everyone work."
Two years after the relocation of hawkers, the overwhelming feelings are discontent and dissatisfaction. While hawkers, shoppers and shopkeepers alike agree that discipline was needed and that the streets of Port Louis are now less obstructed, they all contend that the relocations have adversely affected either their business or their shopping habits. Besides, the Metro Express has brought even more uncertainty to the already-precarious working conditions of some of these hawkers. The coming festive season hence does not bode well at all.