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Capital city battles to clear sidewalks

Update: November, 21/2012 - 10:53

by Ngoc Bich

 

The deputy chief of Ha Noi Police Secretariat, Hoang Cao Thang, has threatened to sack ward police chiefs if they do not clear the pavements of food stalls and drink vendors. Given that the areas are specifically reserved for pedestrians, but are seriously cluttered with vendors and motorbikes, the comment seems fair – and timely.

Thang said that city police collected big fines for pavement violations. Some shops paid fines of VND25-30 million but refused to budge. Thang said to prevent encroachment, police had asked Ha Noi People's Committee to strengthen the leadership of authorities.

Thang's idea, published in an on-line newspaper, was well received by many citizens. While they hope that something will be done to restore pedestrians rights, they are dubious that anything will happen.

Nguyen Minh Trang, a friend of mine, who lives in the Old Quarter, says she totally agrees with clearing the pavements. "Ha Noi's pavements have long become mainly a home for shops and restaurants. It is the capital of the country, so it should not become a big market for anyone who wants to set up business," she said.

Some bureaucrats will say that the Government already has a decree to punish walkway violations. The city itself also has a resolution to deal with the matter – and there have been many campaigns to return the space to pedestrians. However, the individual responsibility of those managing the pavements - city police and authorities – has never been emphasised.

Since 2008, the city's People's Committee has placed a ban on street vendors in 63 streets and a ban on motorbike parking in another 56 streets to try and give pedestrians, including many tourists, a fair go. However, so far, the ban has proved mostly ineffective.

Actually, mobile street vendors, most of whom are low-income people from rural areas, are not the major reason for the blocked pavements. However, the cynical say that banning them is much easier than punishing shops and restaurants, which are the main culprit.

As a resident living on newly opened Xa Dan Street, every night the five-metre-wide pavement is covered with food stalls. They take the walkway as a space for their customers – and to park motorbikes. Pedestrians do have space, but only when it rains!

In my street, whenever stall keepers see ward police cars approaching, they rush to clean up the pavement, and after the cars pass, it's business as usual. An owner of a food stall admitted to me that he sometimes had to bribe the ward police to ignore him.

He said he doubted the likelihood of ward police chiefs being sacked for not clearing up the mess. "If that was reality, no one would take the position," he added.

Besides, he argued that his business, though violating transport regulations, contributed much to the city's budget and helped create jobs for many people. In fact, the city's People's Committee assigned districts and wards to manage and license people to use the pavements. Districts and wards were responsible for both maintaining urban order and actually collecting taxes from the mini businesses using the pavements, said Colonel Nguyen Duc Binh, deputy director of the People's Police Academy.

This clearly shows that districts and wards are assigned to perform two contradictory tasks, he said, adding that some wards even considered the businesses their main source of income.

To make things problematic, different wards had different regulations for licensing pavement use, Binh said. Some wards allowed auto and motorbike parking while others did not. This sort of disparity made clearing pavements impossible for most ward police chiefs.

Binh said pavement encroachment was not just a simple matter as most informal jobs in Viet Nam, particularly in larger cities, were created by pavement shops and stores. While it might be good for authorities to return sidewalks to the people, this also means that many would lose an opportunity to make money.

Another hurdle for police and the authorities is that many people have a habit of frequenting street food stalls. My 18-year-old sister said she and her teenage friends like sitting at tea and food stalls on pavements and watching people hanging around at night.

"When visiting Nha Tho Street at night, especially on holidays, you will see a lot of people, even foreigners, sitting on pavements in idle talk," she said. She said this was one of the city's characteristics that appealed to tourists.

In my opinion, returning pavements to pedestrians would take time. Dismissing police chiefs is not the answer. And unless the State forgoes the taxable income from these mini entrepreneurs and assigns only one agency to manage pavements, the problem will never be solved.

And if it does happen, the leader of the agency will have to take responsibility if he doesn't fulfil his task. — VNS

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