Economy & Development

Ground Battles: Kabul’s disabled street sellers take on the government


Three friends - one leg. These men fought as Mujahedin against the Soviet-backed regime. Only one of them has a healthy leg left. Today, they make some money as street sellers in Kabul's centre. This picture was taken in a small hut behind the stalls, on watch duty protecting the premises. Photo: Christine Roehrs

In the past months, Kabul has seen large demonstrations of disabled people, most of whom were injured during fighting in one or more of the wars of the past three decades. Up to 300 men marched in front of the parliament or the presidential palace. The protests were in response to a campaign by the Ministry of Interior (MoI) to clear Kabul’s pedestrian areas of street sellers. Many street sellers are disabled; running small stalls and selling fruit, vegetables or clothes is often the only way to earn some money. Obaid Ali describes how the Afghan government deals with its significant population of people with disabilities and the politics around the street sellers’ business in the country’s capital.

During one of the first large protests of disabled people in Kabul in September 2012, 300 men and women demonstrated in front of the Lower House of Parliament. They threatened more protests if parliamentarians failed to help them get their street stalls back (see report here). It was a reaction to the massive police raids that had driven thousands of street sellers out of their places of business all over the city. According to the MoI, this is part of an on-going, larger campaign to improve the traffic flow. The police focused on the centre of the town, City Districts 1 and 2, including the busy Forushgah area behind the Malalai Hospital, the area around the Pul-e Kheshti mosque, the so-called Pashtunistan Wat Market behind the Kabul River, Deh Afghanan close to the Gulbahar Centre, and Murad Khane behind the Finance Ministry. They demolished most of the wooden stands put up on public footpaths and in other public places.

Kabul’s street sellers were outraged. ‘We have sacrificed our lives for this country. We cast our votes for this president – and now the government breaks our handcarts,’ one of the demonstrators said.

The protests, at first, seemed to have been successful. The Commission for Martyrs and Disabled of the Lower House, during a session soon after the protests, summoned representatives of the Kabul municipality, the police and the Department for Disabled Affairs within the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled (MoLSAMD) to discuss the demands of the protestors. The commission urged the municipality to provide suitable alternatives for those who had been pushed off the streets.

After a particularly spectacular demonstration in April 2013 in which more than 200 disabled people rallied in front of the presidential palace complaining they were not being treated as human beings (see here), a delegation was allowed to meet Hamed Karzai. On 6 April 2013, its members presented their demands to the president. These included turning the Department for Martyrs and Disabled within the Ministry for Social Affairs into its own ministry, distributing land to disabled people, allowing street sellers to run street stalls, training more doctors in treating disabled, creating higher-education opportunities for their children and scholarships, allowing them to apply for driving licenses and reserving seats for them on the High Peace Council and to Parliament.

Hamid Karzai answered politely that those who had been injured while protecting Afghanistan were ‘good sons of the country’. He urged the mayor, who was present, to address the demands, particularly to allow street booths in places where they would not disturb the traffic (see here).

‘This was more than three months ago,’ said Engineer Daud Sayar, head of the Disabled People Commission. ‘Since then, nothing has happened.’

A familiar sight

Afghanistan’s many disabled people are a vivid reminder of the country’s violent past and present. Many were injured during the fighting of the past three decades whether combatant or civilians – men, women and children – who fell victim to rocket attacks, air strikes or IEDs and landmines. Others have been disabled through the whole range of ‘normal’ peace-time incidents and disasters: disabled from birth, illness or car crashes and other accidents.

As to the number of disabled: figures vary. In 2005, Handicap International, an independent international aid organization, estimated that 655,930 people or 2.7 per cent of the population suffered from disabilities, while a World Bank paper based on the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (NRVA) from 2007–2008 found that 1.6 per cent of the population, or around 400,000 individuals were disabled.

A comprehensive survey has never been conducted, definitions vary and many disabled are not registered with the Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled. Official statistics show only 14,500 people with war-time disabilities registered in Kabul and 250 registered as birth-disabled. Whatever the real figures, small government allowances and a high rate of unemployment pose significant challenges for many.

The shortage of work opportunities turn many to the streets to make a living. They are a familiar sight for anyone living in the capital. They move around town selling phone cards, vegetables, clothes and other items or run small businesses in wooden booths. In addition to enduring the on-going police raids against them in the centre of town, street sellers have found that running small, street-selling business entails a nightmare of bureaucracy.

Ironically, this is a result of parliament’s push to make Kabul municipality officials organise alternative locations for street sellers. As a consequence, municipality officials developed a complicated application process through which street sellers can obtain ‘legal’ business space; a welcome side effect is that the municipality can now control – and limit – the numbers of street sellers.

Bribes for the police

To get permission to run a wooden stand of 1.5 or 2 square metres, the applicant must get a form from one of the disabled people’s unions, councils or associations; countrywide, around 135 such groupings exist, most registered with the Ministry of Justice. Then the applicant must submit the form to the respective office in the MoLSAMD to confirm that he or she is indeed disabled. Afterwards, he or she must present the documents to the Disabled People Commission (Commission-e Mahlolin), a body appointed by all disabled unions and councils and consisting of six influential, disabled people; it notes which union or council introduced applicants for street business locations and controls how many each introduces. Close to the finishing line, the applicant has to carry this form – by now full of stamps and signatures – to the Municipality Department for the Organization of the Markets (Riasat-e Tanzim-e Marketha) where the space for the one- or two-square-metre business is approved. Finally, the form is shown to the local police station so that the police know the newcomers in their area.

This process does not guarantee space, though. Particularly for illiterate applicants, it is so opaque that thousands never bother. Instead, they cut deals for a few square metres with local police who look the other way or actively free up space for ‘illegal’ street sellers for a share in the profit. It is a precarious relationship, this inter-dependency, often turning into battles for ground in what is now an overpopulated city – particularly when the illegally allocated space by right would belong to someone who has gone through the official process.

Aminullah, 43, paralyzed from the waist down, who runs a wooden stand selling fruit near a well-frequented cinema in Kabul’s centre told AAN that he had to wait more than one year to get official permission. As he finally moved into his slot earlier this year, police tried to make him give up his claim. He says that even the commander of the check post in this area approached him. Aminullah refused to leave. The commander kept on pressuring him, admitting to Aminullah that he would lose 1,500 Afghanis per day (30 USD) if he had to remove the street seller he had unofficially rented this area to. But Aminullah did not give in. Then, Aminullah says, the police sent a group of ‘their’ illegal street sellers to beat him up. But Aminullah called upon his own allies, other disabled street sellers. The clash continued for hours.

Brigadier Abdul Rauf Uruzgani, the head of Police District 1 which covers most of central Kabul, told AAN that, yes, there had been reports of corrupt policemen taking money from street sellers in his district. However, since he had been appointed four months ago these practices had stopped. Now, he said, the police commanders and cadres in the centre rotated to new stations every 15 days to prevent them from establishing enough power to extort local street sellers.

Yet problems remain. Police District 1 seems the only one with an anti-corruption strategy. Elsewhere – and maybe also still in District 1 – deals are on-going and bribes are requested on a daily basis. The bakhshish for the tacit permission to run a business on the street without an official certificate ranges from 50 to 150 Afghani (one to three dollars) per day – quite a sum in a country where the average daily income hovers around two dollars. Some areas even have nicknames according to how expensive they are in terms of bribes. The lucrative – and bribe-intensive – area around the Maiwand Hospital for example has been dubbed ‘Kuwait’. The Kabul Chowk, the main roundabout in the city’s old town, is called ‘Dubai’ and Pul-e Yekpaisagi in front of the Defense Ministry is ‘Saudi Arabia’.

As a result, the numbers of wooden stands and carts in central town do not seem to be going down at all. According to Uruzgani, the municipality has allocated 400 slots for disabled people in his police district, but disabled street sellers actually occupied 1,471 places. Uruzgani claims to have ordered a thorough counting of them all.

Blame games, but no solution

Municipality officials say, with some frustration, that the numbers of street sellers, disabled or not, are actually increasing – and fast. According to the deputy mayor, Khozhman Ulumi, more and more people are coming in from the rural areas seeking jobs. This is a well-known phenomenon, but the situation may have worsened in recent months because of heavy insurgency activities in the rural areas, forcing more people to displace to the relative safety of the cities.

Ulumi says he and his officials tried to respond to these problems but street sellers were ‘ungrateful’. ‘The Kabul municipality has allocated 2,210 slots for disabled people in all 22 city districts of Kabul, but these people only want to be in the centre. They obstruct the traffic flow and create obstacles for those on foot!’ According to him, most of the booths around the Kabul River have been illegally rented out to others by disabled people.

For the deputy mayor, the street sellers are less victims and more culprits and says they have been threatening and beating municipality officials: ‘The rais-e naheya (district chiefs) of Districts 2 and 4 were badly wounded when they tried to remove illegal street sellers.’ He also complains about ‘the unrealistic expectations’ of disabled street sellers who apply for business locations. ‘There are more than 100 disabled unions, councils and associations and each of them has come up with hundreds of applications for owning selling places in the centre. We do not have this kind of space. And then, when we reject their applications, they threaten to jump out of a fourth floor window or set themselves on fire in our offices.’

The deputy mayor is also disappointed about ‘the lack of cooperation from the MoI’. He confirmed that the police are quite actively involved in the business. ‘Policemen, for example,’ he said, ‘have illegally occupied 100 slots in City District 4 and now rent them out’. Hedayatullah Hafiz, an MoI deputy spokesman, rejects the municipality’s accusations. He shoots back that it was rather the Kabul municipality that neglected its responsibilities: ‘We carry out our campaign whenever street sellers crowd the city. It is the municipality that should take care of alternative business places for them.’

In this blame game, comprehensive strategies to tackle the major underlying challenge – the high rate of unemployment among Afghanistan’s disabled – are nowhere to be seen.

The 71 associations, unions and councils of the disabled active in Kabul city also fail to make a difference for their members. They lack management skills and the capacity to draw up proposals that would attract national or international donors. Instead, they mainly organise rallies and protests against the government. They are not helpless, though.

Many disabled associations have developed a high degree of organisation; some even speak of ‘mafia structures’. The Brave Afghanistan Disabled People Social Council (Shura-e Ejtema-ye Mahlulin-e Ghoyor-e Afghanistan), for example, has a military structure and uses it well. Its ‘Guard Office’ consists of a unit led by a commander and 20 unarmed ‘soldiers’. They are charged with protecting and securing this council’s members’ business slots from police and others who intend to occupy their territory. Other organisations have taken over many bus stations in Kabul and invented a new business, to the dismay of the drivers who feel forced to pay for a ‘service’ they did not want: the local representative of the respective disabled council or association promises to get them passengers when they pay a small amount for each ride; mostly five to ten Afghani. ‘We have to help ourselves,’ the disabled counter. ‘The government is not helping us.’

More money – for no one

Muhammad Din Qani, the director of the Disabled Affairs Department at the Ministry for Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled seems to be of the same opinion. Not much attention has been paid to disabled people’s difficulties in Afghanistan, he says. He demands that the Finance Ministry allocates two per cent of the national budget to support disabled people – a rather ambitious request considering that currently only about one per cent of the national budget goes into the whole sector of social protection.

Din Qani’s frustration might hail from the fact that he himself has not much to offer to the disabled. His office can hand out only a monthly allowance of meagre 1,500 Afghani (30 dollars), which is far from enough to support the needs of a whole family, probably the reason why many disabled never bother to register with the ministry. On 14 January 2013, the parliament finally approved the Law on Disabled People’s Rights and Privileges which included a raise of the monthly allowance to 5,000 Afghani (100 dollars). The parliament overruled the president’s previous rejection of the law. He had not signed it, stating, according to Ramazan Bashardost, member of the parliament’s Commission for Martyrs and Disabled, that the national budget had not factored in ‘that much more money’.

Even now that the law is signed, the new higher allowance is not being given out yet. And no one seems to know when this will happen – another source of fury in Kabul’s disabled community. Disabled councils and associations have already announced that, if their demands over street business, the monthly allowance and other issues are not met, there will be further protests. This time, they say, they will go countrywide.

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development, Rights & Freedoms