By Hamed Mehri
Herat city – About 2,000 roadside vendors ply their trade on Herat streets everyday, selling everything from bananas to tools or clothing. The work is hard and most make barely enough money to pay expenses and pocket a little profit.
But the trade is a huge moneymaker for scores of municipal employees who thrive off the daily street sales, levying unofficial taxes on the vendors and pocketing most of the cash in a system of extortion that, while widely condemned, is also allowed to flourish.
Municipal officers do not issue receipts, so the exact amount charged cannot be determined. But research by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting indicates that pushcart owners have to pay an average of 40 afghanis a day (about $0.85). Based on that figure, officers from Herat municipality’s Market Regulation Unit collect about 2.4 million afghanis (about $51,000) per month.
No government agency has attempted so far to curb this practice, losing thousands of dollars each month in potential revenue, officials and vendors interviewed told IWPR.
One-wheel and four-wheel handcarts, made either of wood or metal, cost between 2,000-7,000 afghanis. Cart owners, mostly between ages 15-45, usually sell vegetables, fruits, dishes, clothes and other daily use items. Darb-e Malik, Darb-e Kandahar, Jada Lailami, and the road beside the Palace are among dozens of crowded areas in Herat city that are key locations for these handcarts.
Cart owners and street sellers interviewed by IWPR in various areas of Herat city say they earn a daily income of 150-250 afghanis. The most successful sellers – those who have paid for prime locations – can manage to earn 700 afghanis a day but also have to pay bigger bribes, according to vendors.
These petty merchants lead a difficult life, selling from their carts in freezing cold and blistering heat. Many work as long as 15 hours a day. At the crack of dawn or even before, they push their carts to a marketplace to purchase fruits or vegetables. After washing their merchandise, they arrange it on the carts. After a long day of selling, the sellers return the carts to wherever they are kept overnight before returning to their homes.
The sellers say that if they did not pay the Market Regulation Unit officials, they would be told to quit selling because their business was illegal, according to road traffic laws, which state that businesses conducted on roadsides that hamper the flow of vehicles and pedestrians are prohibited. Herat municipal officers say the carts not only add to traffic chaos, but also create security problems.
Nawab, 16, sells women’s clothes from a cart on Lailami Road. He said he has to give municipal officers 40 afghanis every day, and that the officers harass him even after he pays. Nawab said four municipal employees work in shifts on Lailami Road and extort money every day from cart owners and street sellers.
High-ranking municipal officials, including the mayor or his deputies, occasionally appear on the streets to inspect traffic and see how the lower-ranking municipal officers operate. At these times, the officers who every day take money illegally from street sellers make a pretense of enforcing the traffic laws and ban the sellers from doing business on roadsides, vendors say. Sometimes the officials angrily fling a vendor’s merchandise out onto the road.
Extorting money from street vendors and cart pushers by municipal workers have very much become a routine part of what municipal officers do, without having any fear of punishment and law.
On July 31 an IWPR reporter spent the day with cart owners and street sellers on Lailami Road.
Late in the morning, around 11 am, he was walking along the street when he said he suddenly noticed that three uniformed municipal workers had gathered around a cart pusher selling bananas.
The municipal workers were beating the cart owner. After that, these three officers accompanied the cart pusher to the area near Malaka Jalali School and parked his cart among other confiscated carts.
When he asked the vendor what was going on. The cart seller said: “They were municipal workers and demanded money from me. Since I didn’t pay them any, they took me off the streets.”
The reporter returned to Lailami Road and soon witnessed another incident: A municipal worker known by the vendors as Muhyeddin was sitting in a motorized rickshaw on the Lailami roadside and taking money from a banana seller. While he was counting the money, the reporter asked him why he took money from the vendor. Noticing the reporter’s microphone, Muhyeddin got frightened and the money slipped out from his hand onto the street.
A crowd of passersby soon huddled around Muhyeddin, and in front of that crowd demanding an explanation. Muhyeddin admitted to having taken that money as a bribe.
“I ask the vendors to come to me when they come near my post and put the money in my hand without speaking to me. Don’t rush over to me, so people don’t notice us,” he said, before quickly leaving the area.
After his departure, the banana seller, who introduced himself as Mohammad Arif, said: “This guy, Muhyeddin, works for the municipality. He takes money from me every day, and in return, allows me to peddle on the street with my cart.”
Taking bribes from vendors is not limited to municipal officers; cart pushers allege that police officers sometimes violently remove their carts from the streets and physically assault them.
Nearly 20 handcart owners who were interviewed, however, refused to have their voices recorded or to be named during interviews with an IWPR reporter, for fear that police or market officers would learn of the interviews and ban them from doing business.
But Ghulam Nabi, a street vendor who sells women clothes, said municipal officers took 50 afghanis every day. He said he has no other choice but to pay the bribes in order to keep working, because he’s supporting 12 members of his family.
He said municipal officers patrolling in the streets order the vendors to pay them kickbacks in a way that no passersby will notice. “Municipal officers tell us to get away from the crowd when we see them, and to hand them the money without uttering a word,” Nabi explained.
“Several days ago, municipal officers confiscated 120 pairs of girls’ pants worth 6,000 afghanis and fined me 1,000 afghanis,” Nabi said. “When I went to the municipality to pay the fine, all the pants had been plundered stolen y municipal workers.”
Rasikh, manager of Herat Municipality’s Market Regulation Unit, denied Nabi’s allegation, and said he would not accept any allegations of bribe taking unless proper video proof was provided.
“It’s true that my officers confiscate merchandise from street sellers, but we store the merchandise in big containers until it is claimed,” he said. “Most of the time, handcart owners do not come after their confiscated merchandise for fear of our officers,” he added, without explaining, however, why the vendors would be fearful of collecting their goods.
Despite regulations governing the behavior of city employees, vendors say few – if any – are ever punished for preying on the pushcart owners; they become emboldened and only take more. As well, vendors explain that their activities are not regulated by any laws, exposing them to extortion.
IWPR interviews with dozens of vendors revealed that some of these employees – identified by the sellers as Muhyeddin, Mohammad Akbar, Momin, Ahmad Zia, Khalil Ahmad and a man simply nicknamed “The Fox” – have held their current posts for more than five years. The vendors say these government employees curry favor with their bosses by giving them a large percentage of the money they take off the street, further encouraging this cycle of graft.
None of the municipal workers on the street would talk. An IWPR reporter tried seven times to interview Heart’s mayor, Mohammad Salim Taraki, and other top municipality officials, but was refused an audience every time.
But Rasikh, the manager of the Market Regulation Unit, said he thought the estimate of 2.4 million afghanis a month in illegal collections was too high a figure. “I’m not saying that corruption doesn’t exist in our office,” he said. “But (some) cart owners are lying. They have a hostile attitude towards us. My officials can’t possibly collect that much money.”
Mohammad Rafigh Mojaddadi, the previous mayor of Herat, was fired after accusations of corruption and embezzlement made by prosecutors, and was later convicted and sentenced to five years in prison and fined $90,000.
At a press conference in Herat in April 2009, Taraki acknowledged that embezzlement is widespread among municipal workers and that this practice was one of his gravest concerns. Little, however, appears to have been done to curb the practice of shaking down street vendors for money.
Back on Herat’s streets, the city worker known only as the “Fox” carries a club and is much loathed by hundreds of shopkeepers and pushcart owners along Lailami Road and near Kandahar Gate who have give him money every day. Many cart sellers say that when they see him, they are reminded of Taliban times.
The difference is that the Taliban lashed cart owners to make them go to mosques and observe their prayers, while the “Fox” uses his club to extract bribes.
Listen to the story in Dari