Saturday, March 24 2018


A complex problem we can’t resign ourselves to

Update: January, 11/2018 - 10:38
Đoàn Ngọc Hải. — Photo

Hoàng Anh

On Monday, Deputy Chairman of the District 1 People’s Committee Đoàn Ngọc Hải in HCM City handed in his papers, admitting failure in his efforts to clear pavements of unauthorized vendors and other forms of illegal encroachment.

Hải’s action was remarkable and admirable. He’d promised the public in February last year that he would regain the pavement for pedestrians or resign from his post by the end of the year. The man kept his promise. A public official staking is reputation and career on a promise and then keeping it is virtually unheard of in this country.

Unfortunately, it’s not a resignation that we wanted. But, while we bemoan the loss of a sincere official, there must be a recognition that Hải’s failure was not just one of implementing the law, but a failure to place the problem in its proper context and to plan a long-term, feasible solution.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Hải’s campaign to retake the pavement from illegal street vendors, parking lots and unauthorised constructions wasn’t the first of its kind.

Once in every while, local authorities, in response to a Government resolution or decree, would start campaigns to clear the pavement, but these were typically as ineffective as they were counter-productive.

A week, ten days after the campaign, the street vendors would return to their old spots, restaurants would put their plastic tables out and parking lots would sprout up from nowhere again. The word on the street was that one has to wait it out and return to business as usual.

Hải’s zealousness was also impressive. He took to the street on a daily basis to personally handle vendors, parking violators and illegal constructions. It was a rare sight to behold – a district level deputy head doing what he did. There were positive signs as people listened to him, some even voluntarily modified their drive-ins that had encroached pavement space for years.

Hải’s campaign became a model, starting a nation-wide pavement reclamation effort. Authorities in other cities jumped on the pavement clearance bandwagon, wanting to make an impression that they, too, were doing their job.

But we all know that in this country, the pavement has a life of its own. There are millions of migrants from the countryside who are trying to make a living on the pavements of big cities, and many of them are street vendors. They are terrified of having their carts taken away or of paying huge fines, which most of them can’t afford, but what other livelihood choice do they have?

Rapid urbanisation and overpopulation in recent decades have overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure. Parking lots sprout up on the pavement because people simply do not have anywhere else to park their personal vehicles. With public transportation underdeveloped, the people have no choice. Scaring people off the pavement with fines isn’t going to work when they have no other alternative. These moves are just bad treatment of a symptom, not the root cause of the disease.  

When the pavements were cleared for the first time in many years, people started to compare District 1 to Singapore, famous for its tidiness. But Singapore took decades to get where they are today, and there is very important difference. The island state has no rural area or agriculture sector to speak of. And if there is one thing we should indeed learn from Singapore, it is planning.

Singapore carried out many studies on street vendors and based policies and implementation on their findings. The intent was to make sure street vendors would be able to make a living after being moved off the pavement. There was no such prior activity before Hải started his campaign.

Things turned sour quickly when street vendors refused to comply with the rules. A video clip of a fish ball vendor struggling with law enforcement forces to hold onto his stall went viral on the Internet.

Hải said he was threatened, insulted and intimidated. By October last year, he was effectively stripped of his ability to freely patrol the street. Instead, he was only allowed to do so when it was approved by a superior. By the time he handed in his resignation, the pavements had been reoccupied by the same street vendors, restaurants and businesses for months, as if nothing had happened.

To repeat, several aspects of Hải’s actions are commendable: his conviction and dedication; as also his willingness to risk his career and not play it safe.

But what did it earn him? Many said that he was a modern-day Don Quixote, the old Spanish knight who charged at windmills, mistaking it for giant foes. There is some merit in this description.

“Restoring order to the city’s pavement is a task that will require the involvement and commitment of the entire political apparatus as well as the support of society,” Hải said in his resignation letter.

True, but it was his failure to present a convincing plan that showed he had done his homework well, placed the problem in the context of rural-urban migration and its causes and identified alternative solutions.

But Hải’s actions were not totally in vain. A project has been launched to identify suitable areas to relocate street vendors so that they can continue doing business.

As the cliché goes, failures are stepping stones to success, but only if the right lessons are learnt from them.

Our aim should not be to look like Singapore, but apply their methods to polish our own Pearl of the Orient. — VNS

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