Sreet vendors have appealed to the Prime Minister after authorities banned them from selling food at night on the streets.
The police have attributed rising crime with the availability of late night street food. They argue that street food is encouraging people to stay out longer and providing the fuel for people to commit crime.
While the police must be commended for their recent initiative, in fact, for taking the lead, we must be cautious when accepting social theories from a law enforcement agency. That is the realm of academia and research.
But lacking that research in Bhutan, the police therefore must be acknowledged for attempting to venture into this field. It shows they are concerned and attempting to fill that gap. However, it is important for such social theories to be backed up with research or investigation, and evidence, for this is a serious correlation being put forth.
The causes of crime, according to research carried out elsewhere in the world, indicate are much more complex than the availability of late night street food. If it is indeed a direct cause of criminal behaviour, then we must ask why some all-night convenience stores and markets are not banned in other countries like Iceland, Denmark, and Singapore. These countries are regularly ranked as having the lowest crime rates in the world.
By now, we are well aware that bans don’t work. The ban on cigarettes has created a thriving black market. The black market can’t be regulated. We cannot create another black market for late night food. The sale of food has to be regulated, and for that to happen, the relevant authorities must consider legalizing street vendors.
With unemployment a serious threat to society, it would be in our own interest for the vendors to be engaged in selling food on the street, visible to all, rather than selling tobacco and drugs in dark alleys.
The sale of food is a legitimate and socially acceptable business, no matter what time it is sold. We cannot take away this economic opportunity. They need the income.
By taking away this source of income, we may be discouraging them from being productive citizens. The vendors have a right to choose when they want to sleep and what they want to sell.
We must also be careful in making generalizations. Not all who stay out late into the night do so because the street vendors will be there offering food to sell. Not all who consume the late night food go on to commit crime. Not all the street vendors are selling tobacco or drugs. For a few rotten apples, the bigger basket must not be affected.
The solution would be to legalize the practise and regulate it. The thromde can set up designated areas for the street vendors to occupy.
The street vendors can be penalized when they sell outside the designated zones, when they block footpaths, litter the area or sell illegal goods. The quality and safety of the food they sell can be inspected. They can be made to operate within rules and regulations.
But let us not punish citizens for choosing a productive work. And let us not blame them for causing crime.