Straightforward and non-assuming, Salma, the leader of Azad Hawkers Union started selling vegetables in IIT market from the age of 7. Fluent in English, this Social Activist has spoken in international conferences and is an inspiration of how to emerge successful against all odds.
I was born in Powai hospital 28 years back. My parents were vegetable vendors at Vijay Nagar, Marol. They worked very hard. They would leave home early in the morning and would return back late at night. Our friendly neighbours in the chawl and looked after me and my siblings. When I was 7, we were lucky to get space to sell vegetables in Powai so we decided to set up our stall at IIT main gate. After school each day, I used to come home, fill up water and sweep the house before rushing to help my father in his business. I use to manage the stall and would request customers to buy a little extra and they would always oblige. When it was time to close, I would help my father pack all the vegetables and return home with him. This was a ritual that continued for a very long time.
When I was 14, I decided to put up my own stall near Prashant Apartments. Initially I travelled with my dad to Vashi at 5 in the morning and bought vegetables. Then I started selling the vegetables that he bought. It was not that there was any problem between us in the family but I wanted to save money that my father was unable to do. I saved Rs.200 every day and when my savings reached Rs. 1.5 lacs we repaired the house we stayed in and then on my father’s advice, I closed the stall at Prashant Apartments and started helping him selling vegetables in his stall.
As a child I had witnessed constant harassment by the BMC. One day (I was 15 years old) we had just placed all the vegetables in the stall and the BMC came and just threw away all the vegetables on the road. We vehemently protested but they did not pay any heed. My parents and I were taken to Sakinaka Police Station where a FIR was filed and subsequently shifted to Santacruz lockup. We were detained for 2 days. When in jail, I thought to myself that we did nothing illegal, toiled day and night and made enough money to exist. Pray why were we being targeted? This incident was the turning point in my life and I decided to fight against injustice.
Meeting Your idol
My mother was a worker with the Azad Hawkers Union and she regularly attended meetings. One day some members came to take her for a meeting to be chaired by the President Mr. Dayashankar Singh. Since she was not at home, I requested my dad if I could accompany them. At the meeting I spoke that if there was injustice we should stand up against it rather just keeping quiet. This would deny repeated exploitation. Mr. Singh was impressed by me considering I was just 15 years old. He ensured that I accompanied and attended all the meetings from then onwards. Besides my parents, Mr. Singh has influenced me in a big way and honed my skills.
I was chosen to represent Asia in the World Social Forum in 2007 that was held in Nairobi, Kenya by National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI). I fitted the criteria of representing since the candidate had to be single, been to jail, firsthand experience of being a vendor and had to address in English. The topic was Street child labours and Street child vendors. The second conference was Global Network Conference in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. A draft had to be prepared for the issues of Hawkers, Domestic workers and Labourers. We were to give suggestions on the challenges we faced in our respective countries. Participants from 26 countries attended the conference. It was an eye opener for me and much to my surprise the problems for vendors persisted everywhere in the world.
Day to day activity
I go to the Union office every day. We have also started a Bharosa cooperative society. The sole purpose of the co-operative society is to fund vendors who are unable to get loans from banks as they don’t have any permanent address. The rate of interest charged by moneylenders is very steep and the vendors only pay interest all their lives. Besides, I also help hawkers from across the city when they are made a target by BMC or Police.
My dream is to become a lawyer and fight for justice for poor people. There are so many women who have been marginalised by their family, society and even by an individual. They don’t have money to fight a court case. I’d like to help them as a social cause. Besides this, it gives me immense joy to motivate women and I take every opportunity when I’m addressing a female audience.
Message to the community
Powai is both my ‘Janam bhoomi’ and ‘Karmabhoomi’. The people of Powai are extremely friendly and non-interfering. They love peace and harmony. They have been very supportive towards me and encouraged me to study. I owe a lot to the people of Powai.