Saturday, January 20, 2007

On the Rickshaw's Deathbed

My first recollection of the humble rickshaw is the immortal scene from the Bimal Roy classic Do Bigha Zameen. The protagonist Balraj Sahni keeps galloping across the roads as his customer screams “Aur Tez..Aur tez…” until he finally collapses and the cart topples. It’s been so many years now but this poignant scene remains etched in my consciousness even after such a long time. It once again flashed through my thoughts when I recently read reports banning the rickshaw from our roads. Things haven’t changed; we still want to move faster and faster and the sufferer remains the rickshaw puller…

The hand-pulled cart has been, for years, a quintessential Bengali wonder which has never made it big in the rest of the country. I’m not too sure why this has happened but the Communists now have plans to get rid of this “inhuman” profession which seems to be a stark reminder of everything the red card carriers want to bury. This city has long conjured cliches of humanity’s epic struggle for dignity, amidst grinding poverty. None more so than the Rickshaw wallahs – barefoot human beasts of burden fighting for their very existence on the city’s streets, immortalized on the silver screen by Dominique Lappiere’s City of Joy .

Kolkata attempted to ban the practice in 1996 blaming the rickshaws for clogging up the city’s already congested streets. The pullers fought off that challenge; a year later, it offered rickshaw pullers 7,000 rupees to turn in their vehicles but there were no takers. Now that the Government has amended the 1919 Hackney-Carriage Act governing slow-moving vehicles, you can find comrades hatching a battle plan once again, in their dilapidated union office.

The main grouse raised against these rickshaws is that it is inhuman for anyone to carry the burden of other human beings on themselves. It is a retrograde practice and goes against the spirit of human rights and compassion that we cherish so much more nowadays.

Yes, the hand cart is inhuman and the coolie has a glamorous job profile!!!

I am not too sure what is so inhuman about pulling a cart? It would be inhuman if they were forced into this but they are not. How different is it from the many other labour intensive jobs like working in mines or fields where people have to slog it out for a paltry sum of wages? Does banning the cart that feeds thousands of people give them a greater dignity of labour?

The Government has promised to provide a compensation and alternate means of livelihood. It has said that these hand-pulled carts would be replaced by cycle or motor ones. It has, however, not said if it would provide the rickshaw runners with these new vehicles. Even if the compensation were to be given, it would only be given to the licensed rickshaws, which form a paltry 10% of the overall rickshaws (As per the last estimates about a decade back, there are about 35,000 hand-pulled rickshaws and 45,000 cycle rickshaws). The rest of the faceless set of rickshaws would be driven into unemployment just because the Government thinks it’s better to do nothing than doing something which may be “undignified”.

The rapid pace of urbanization has a corroding effect on the environmental and social conditions in cities. With the auto industry accelerating and the Tatas all ready to roll out their 1 lakh car (where else but in Singur in West Bengal), we can expect an avalanche of polluting automobiles sweeping the roads. But when the Government thinks it’s more important to create SEZs for auto majors, why think about handling the road infrastructure or lack of it?

It may not be very glamorous for the State to be a part of the green brigade but the least it can do is not destroying such non-polluting transportation systems, which employ thousands of people, especially the most vulnerable ones. Cars are owned by well to do people and they contribute heavily to the atmospheric pollution. The sufferers are primarily the people who live in the fringes in cities – on the pavements and slums created by poor infrastructural policies.

Another argument put forward is that rickshaws slow down traffic, leading to congestion at all busy roads. Don’t even think about the numerous cars (currently growing at more than 20% rate) that clog India’s poorly managed roadways and the autos; the culprit is the poor man’s rickshaw. Since it’s easier to ban the rick rather than try to improve the urban infrastructure, the State is going ahead. We live in a fast world where being “slow” is a sin. There’s no time for anything in the world and we cannot wait for things to happen at their own time; anything that does not conform to this principle is archaic and needs to be removed.

Every city has its own set of landmarks or heritage structures which gives it that distinct look and it is the rickshaw, that has dotted the cluttered the lanes of Kolkata, that has served this purpose. Moreover, hand carts are generally used not in the city but in these numerous by-lanes which traverse through the length and breadth of the city. No other means of transportation can take their place through such places. But by targetting this vehicle, the only “non-polluting” means of transportation is being eradicated from the Earth.

But come to think of it, the reason for this sudden enlightenment and human compassion is nothing else - the State’s attempt to hitch their cart onto the band wagon of globalisation. And in this pursuit of money, there's no place for such images of backwardness which have to be cast into the past. Buddhadeb and his party are looking at giving it an image make over and so, the humble rickshaw will be booted from Kolkata’s bylanes. So, if you want the see the rickshaw again, the only place available may be the celluloid screen...

However, if you think that Bengal is the only place determined to get rid of its past, you are wrong. Delhi has banned rickshaws in many parts of the city and China, the home to the largest cycle market, is taking steps to ban them in Shanghai and other places. Globalisation is fine but can’t we try to modify it to have a policy of Green Globalisation, where everyone has a scope to live and let live…


  1. Its always easy to pass on the buck & responsibility of societal cleanliness on the poor & downtrodden...without baiting an eyelid as to what is the root cause of them being there, where they are...

    Remember the celluloid version of famous Indira Gandhi slogan from late seventies 'Garibi Hatao' turned into 'Garibon ko hatao'...well these instances are nothing but the actioning of such plans... as the prevalent & easy way to eradicate poverty is to eradicate the poor...isn’t it?

    The poor only serve the purpose of being looked down upon.... trodden upon & sloganed for during elections then forgotten...

    Well in our fast paced life these slow creatures have no longer a place...a twist to Darwin theory of 'Survival of the fittest' into 'Survival of the fastest'

  2. I quite agree to your thought when you wrote, yes, the hand cart is inhuman and the coolie has a glamorous job profile!!!

    It is completely an individual’s choice about the kind of profession one chooses…being in Operations for the last three years also makes me think that how is my work different from the work done by ‘not so glamorous’ people. The only luxury that I have is an AC office and better money. But at the end of the day, I am also cleaning shit, we all do…don’t we?

    Also I wonder why this late spur of human emotions in the hearts of the Communist Party of India. They represent anything but communism. Jyoti Basu ruled the stae for well over a score…& the economic condition only became worse. In a span of 20 years India has become a force to reckon with, in 20 years one can change the detiny of the country…but look at West Bengal…it pains all the Bengalis to see the state of affairs. The one time capital of the country had hit the rocks…what remained was the old romanticism that characterises the state, rather Kolkata. People never wanted to work. One of my old friend’s Dad was one of the Directors with Dunlop India & was operating from Kolkata. There were some rumors that Dunlop is going to start again. And one of the neighbour of my friend’s came to ask his mother, “will you please check with Argho (my friend) dad, if the company starts working, we will also have to start working from the first day itself!”

    But having said all these I must say that Mr Bhattacharya has been able to bring about some changes in the way their party see things. The state’s economic condition is improvng…the city infrastructure looks much better…new flyovers have come up. Importantly, the literate youth of the state no longer find it imperative to leave the city to find a decent job. There is not much of an improvement in the rural areas…issues like water supply, electrification, rural credit still continue to be the crippling issues. Though I do not have much data on this, but I guess rural Bengal continue to be in a mismanaged state.

    Coming to the main topic…there have to be reasons to ban this mode of transportation. We need to figure out if the reason behind the motive are really genuine, and more importantly, is there a definite plan to serve the rickshaw pullers in a better fashion. What are then alternatives that are being offered to them? Do they gurantee an improvement or is just one of the many governmental claims?

    The state government also needs to understand, that the rickshaw pullers forms an integral part of the the typical west bengal (read Kolkata) culture.

    As a possible solution, a limit can be put that would define the number of rickshaw pullers that can be on the streets…but then the question remains, how does one define such a limit. The definition cannot be an abstract thing…it has to be scientific. There can be yet another way, to restrict rickshaw pullers from entering some zones within the Kolkata city… as we have in Mumbai, where no auto-rickshaws are allowed beyond Bandra…works well for the city.

    The reasons are for the government of Bengal to figure out. However, I would say, that if banning is done with a view uplift the social conditions of the rickshaw pullers, well done Mr Bhattacharya. And in case you are thinking on the morality part…well your government was never moral…there are too many immoral things happening in the state…take care of them first…have a clear heart and the ‘roads’ to a better Bengal will be clear as well.