Herat Traders Fed Up With Extortion
About 2,000 roadside vendors ply their trade on Herat streets every day, selling everything from bananas to tools and clothing. It is hard work, and most make barely enough money to cover their expenses plus a little profit.
But the trade is a huge money-maker for scores of municipal employees who thrive by levying unofficial taxes on the traders and pocketing most of the cash. The extortion has been widely condemned, but is also allowed to flourish.
Municipal officers are hardly going to issue receipts, so the exact amount they charge cannot be determined. But research by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting indicates that the owners of hand carts have to pay an average of 40 afghanis a day, about 85 US cents. Based on that figure, officers from the Herat city market regulation unit could be collecting 2.4 million afghanis, or 51,000 dollars, every month.
No government agency has yet attempted to curb the illicit levies, meaning that thousands of dollars in potential legal taxes are lost every month.
Darb-e Malik, Darb-e Kandahar, Jada Lailami, and the road beside the palace are among dozens of crowded areas in Herat that are prime locations for the handcart traders. One-wheeled and four-wheeled carts cost between 2,000-7,000 afghanis to buy. Their owners, mostly aged between 15 and 45, sell vegetables, fruit, dishes, clothes and other items.
Cart owners and street sellers interviewed by IWPR in various areas of Herat city say they earn 150 to 250 afghanis a day. The most successful of them, who have paid for prime locations, may earn 700 afghanis a day, but they also have to pay bigger bribes.
These small traders lead difficult lives, working in the freezing cold and blistering heat, often 15 hours a day. At dawn or even before that, they push their carts to markets to purchase fruits or vegetables. After washing the merchandise, they arrange it on their carts. After a long day of selling, they return the carts to wherever they keep them overnight before returning home.
The sellers say that if they did not pay the market regulation unit officers, they would be told to stop selling because they are operating illegally, under road traffic laws that ban roadside businesses that obstruct vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
Nawab, 16, sells women’s clothes from a cart on Lailami Road. He said he has to give municipal officers 40 afghanis a day, and that the officers harass him even after he has paid. Nawab said four municipal employees work in shifts on Lailami Road, extorting money from cart owners and other street sellers.
High-ranking municipal officials, including the mayor or his deputies, occasionally appear on the streets to inspect the traffic and see how their subordinates are doing. At such times, the officers make a show of enforcing traffic regulations and tell the roadside traders to move, sometimes tipping their merchandise onto the street.
The extortion has become routine, with no apparent fear of punishment.
An IWPR reporter who spent the day with cart owners and street sellers on Lailami Road last July spotted three uniformed municipal workers gathering round a cart selling bananas. They assaulted the owner, and then accompanied him to an area near the Malaka Jalali School where the cart was left alongside others that had been confiscated.
When the reporter asked the vendor what was going on, he replied, “They were municipal workers who demanded money from me. As I didn’t pay them anything, they took me off the streets.”
Returning to Lailami Road, the reporter soon witnessed another incident. A municipal worker known to traders as Mohyeddin was sitting in a motorised rickshaw by the roadside, taking money from a banana seller. While he was counting the money, the reporter asked him why he had taken it. Noticing the reporter’s microphone, Mohyeddin became alarmed and the money slipped out of his hand onto the street.
A crowd of passers-by soon gathered around, demanding an explanation. Mohyeddin admitted that he had taken the money as a bribe.
“I ask the traders to come to me when they are passing, and to put the money in my hand without speaking to me,” he said, before quickly leaving the area.
After he had gone departure, the banana seller, who introduced himself as Mohammad Arif, said, “That guy Mohyeddin works for the municipality. He takes money from me every day, and in return, he allows me to trade on the street with my cart.”
The extortion is not limited to municipal officers. Traders allege that police officers sometimes remove their carts from the streets and physically assault them.
Nearly 20 handcart owners to whom IWPR spoke refused to be named or have their voices recorded, for fear that police or market officers would learn of the interviews and ban them from doing business.
Ghulam Nabi, a street vendor who sells women clothes, was among those where were prepared to speak. He said municipal officers took 50 afghanis from him every day. He said he had no other choice but to keep on paying bribes in order to carry on working, as he is supporting 12 family members.
He confirmed that municipal officers patrolling the streets ordered traders to pay kickbacks unobserved. “Municipal officers tell us to get away from the crowd when we see them, and to hand them the money without saying a word,” Nabi explained.
“Several days ago, municipal officers confiscated 120 pairs of girls’ trousers worth 6,000 afghanis and fined me 1,000 afghanis,” Nabi said. “When I went to the municipality to pay the fine, all the trousers had been plundered by municipal workers.”
Rasikh, manager of Herat municipality’s Market Regulation Unit, denied allegations of extortion, and said he would not accept that bribery was going on unless video evidence was provided.
“It’s true that my officers confiscate merchandise from street sellers, but we store it in large containers until it is claimed,” he said. “Most of the time, handcart owners don’t come after their confiscated merchandise for fear of our officers.” He did not elaborate on why they would be afraid.
Despite regulations governing the behaviour of city employees, street traders say that few, if any, are ever punished for preying on them. That emboldens them to ask for more. The traders say that since their own activities are not regulated by law, they are left exposed to extortion.
IWPR interviews with dozens of vendors revealed that some of the city officials have been in post for more than five years, currying favour with their superiors by giving them a substantial percentage of their illicit earnings.
None of the municipal workers on the street would talk. An IWPR reporter tried seven times to interview Herat mayor Mohammad Salim Taraki and other top city officials, but was turned down.
Rasikh, the manager of the Market Regulation Unit, said he thought the estimate of 2.4 million afghanis a month in illegal levies was too high.
“I’m not saying that corruption doesn’t exist in our office,” he said. “But the cart owners are lying. They are hostile to us. My officials can’t possibly collect that much money.”
Mohammad Rafiq Mojaddadi, the previous mayor of Herat, was sacked after prosecutors brought accusations of corruption and embezzlement against him, and was sentenced to five years in prison and fined 90,000 dollars.
At a press conference in April 2009, his successor Taraki acknowledged that embezzlement was widespread among municipal workers and that this was one of his gravest concerns.
Little seems to have been done since then to stop officials shaking down street traders.
On Herat’s streets, one city officials known as “the Fox” carries a club as he makes his rounds, and is much loathed by the hundreds of shopkeepers and handcart traders along the Lailami Road and near Kandahar Gate who give him money every day.
Many of them say that whenever they see him, they are reminded of Taleban rule. The difference is that the Taleban would whip traders to force them to go to the mosques and pray, whereas the “Fox” uses his club to extract bribes.
Hamed Mehri is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan.
This report was produced in November 2011 as part of the Afghan Investigative Journalism Fund project, and originally published on the Afghan Centre for Investigative Journalism website which IWPR has set up locally.