The end of the hand pulled rickshaw?

G. Singh describes the plight of rickshaw pullers in Kolkata in the face of the State government’s decision to replace the hand-pulled rickshaws with battery rickshaws…A vital part of history associated with Kolkata also comes to an end with this decision.

At 74, Ali Mohammad seems to defy his age. Except for a white beard, there is virtually nothing to suggest that he is in the autumn of his life. Though skinny, the septuagenarian looks hale and hearty. Ali has been a rickshaw puller in Kolkata for the last five decades. The same rickshaw hailed as “inhuman” by custodians of the society has provided him with bread and better and funded the education of his six children for several years.

Unmindful of whatever sobriquets are bestowed on his humble rickshaw, the old man has always been proud of not only transporting people from one place to another but also pulling a legacy whose chiming bells have attracted the attention of the people worldwide.

But now, Ali fails to have proper sleep at night. He fears that his livelihood is in danger and may soon have to leave the city and return to his native village in Bihar from where he migrated to the city of joy in search of livelihood six decades ago.

The reason: the state government’s decision to replace the hand pulled rickshaws with the battery rickshaws. The decision has been hailed by the society as a relief to the rickshaw pullers who, according to them, have been doing the ignoble job for several years.  Surprisingly, the announcement has not gone done well among people like Ali, who call it an attack on their livelihood.

The discontent sounds strange at a time when the battery rickshaws seem a viable alternative and have already met with a huge success in the twin city of Howrah.

We tried to find the reason behind the discontent among rickshaw pullers by talking to them. Crammed lanes with people and vehicles jostling for an inch of space are a common sight in Burrabazar, the business hub of the city. Ramdev Yadav, 60, from Jharkhand’s Giridih, is busy navigating his rickshaw through the busy lanes of Chitpur in Burrabazar. He has a job in his hands: to shift a passenger, who happens to be an 80-year-old man to a nearest doctor as the old man is suffering from a respiratory problem.

After reaching the doctor’s chamber, he lowers his rickshaw to allow the old man to disembark and then holds his hand to help him to reach safely to the clinic. Ramdev looks for a glass of water to soak his parched throat before striking a conversation, “Good days are knocking on the door as the government has decided to replace the hand pulled rickshaws with battery rickshaws. You must be happy?” the question asked.

The news and the question attached to it doesn’t bring a smile on his face, rather he turns gloomy, “It seems that our days are numbered in the city and soon we have to wind up our business and return to the village to survive at the mercy of our children who may or may not feed us,” he says, looking at the sky perhaps lost in deep thoughts.

After a brief pause, he continues, “It is virtually impossible for people of my age to get trained and drive electric rickshaws. I have pulled a hand rickshaw throughout my life and willing to do so till the body permits.” “The battery rickshaws would be handed over to those having licenses, while several thousands of pullers like me who hail from neighbouring states have no local documents to prove our citizenship despite living in the city for several decades. In that scenario, a majority of us would become jobless and penniless.

People like Yadav and Ali are the tip of the iceberg. An estimate suggests that more than 80 percent of the total rickshaws pullers in the city have no licenses and are aged above 55. As per records, the city has a fleet of around 6,000 hand pulled rickshaws pulled by licensed pullers. Unofficially, however, the count is quite high with more than 10,000 rickshaws and nearly 25,000 pullers. Needless to mention, their family members are dependent on them for a morsel of bread.

The state government may have tried to earn some brownie points by deciding to replace the hand pulled rickshaw with the modern avatars, but the ground reality speaks a different story where the pullers are desperately worried about their livelihood. The erstwhile government had also tried to ban the hand pulled rickshaws, but couldn’t succeed.

In 2005, the Left regime banned the hand pulled rickshaws by terming it inhuman and without offering any alternative form of livelihood. The then Bengal government through the Calcutta Hackney-Carriage (Amendment) Bill, 2006, heralded the departure of the rickshaws from the city amid shrill calls of disapproval and remonstration.

Ironically, it was Trinamool Congress that had opposed the rickshaw’s phase-out back in 2006 and its legislators had even boycotted the amendment. The bill was challenged and the Calcutta High Court stayed the legislation, but the authorities refused to renew the licenses of the rickshaw pullers, leaving them in lurch. As a result, no fresh licenses have been issued since August 15, 2005.

In 2010, when Trinamool took over the reins of Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), Sovan Chatterjee, the mayor, announced a decision to issue photo ID cards to pullers, giving the mode of transport a fresh lease of life. Many believe that phasing out hand pulled rickshaws is easier said than done. The government has declared that it would rehabilitate the rickshaw pullers, but in practice it implies to those having licenses. But in the city, most of the owners rent their rickshaws to others and collect revenue.

For instance, Md Mustafa (65) is known as “Sardar” (leader) among the community of rickshaw pullers. He has 25 rickshaws for which he charges Rs 20 each as rent from the puller daily.

“I used to earn nearly Rs 500 every day by renting them to the pullers, a few years back. But things have begun to change now. With no new pullers joining the profession, hand pulled rickshaws are dying a slow death. Most of rickshaws remain parked because of no pullers. Days are not far away when the hand pulled rickshaws will slowly disappear into oblivion,” he said, smoking a bidi (local cigarette) at his shop near Central Avenue in central Kolkata.

He continues: the government might provide me with battery operated rickshaws but what about the pullers mostly hailing from Bihar and Jharkhand and having no license and other documents to prove that they belong to this city. They have been living and earning their livelihood for decades but without any legal documents of their identity.

Mustafa says that people like carpenters, seat makers and others who contribute in making the rickshaws would also lose their livelihood if the government has its way.

The rickshaw unions who proposed to the government about the replacement of pulled rickshaws seem to have no proper plans about the rehabilitation of the pullers, “We proposed to the government to replace them with battery operated rickshaws as 25 percent of hand pulled rickshaws just ply in the city with the rest parked in the garages because of no pullers. Their numbers have been dwindling with each passing day. The battery operated vehicles would be easy to drive and would not be inhuman. The government has agreed to fund the entire cost of e-rickshaws for those having licenses,” said Mr Muktar Ali, Vice President of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union.

When asked about the rehabilitation of the unauthorised pullers, he assured , “We would discuss with the government and find a solution, but nothing has been finalised about the pullers.”

The government also has to look at other issues as well which include the size and cost of vehicles, cost of operation, route alignments and roads on which they will be allowed to ply. At present, there are restrictions on some roads in the city for hand-pulled as well as cycle rickshaws. A transport department official conceded, the hand-pulled rickshaws cannot be phased out overnight and the process would be time-taking.

“It would prove to be a Herculean task for us to finalise the routes for the new set of vehicles. It has been decided that battery rickshaws would be restricted to arterial roads. They would essentially be contract carriages, unlike autos that ply on specific routes. But nothing has been finalised yet. The picture is hazy right now,” added the official requesting anonymity.

The government has decided to use two-seater variants, but is yet to finalise the subsidy amount for each rickshaw. A two-seater e-rickshaw costs around Rs 30,000. The license holders would get some subsidy but that is subject to clearance from the finance department.

“We had decided to recruit rickshaw-pullers in various projects but Trinamool Congress, then in the opposition bench, put up a stiff resistance fearing loss of livelihood. Now it seems Mamata Banerjee is facing the same challenges that her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee faced eight years ago,” said a senior Left leader.

Though the hand pulled rickshaws have faced allegations of cruelty and man pulling a man, it has continued to survive and still remains as a popular mode of transport for the elderly and sick people in the congested pockets of Burrabazar, Mullickbazar and Sealdah.

Many old timers feel that a legacy would be lost with the exit of the rickshaws that are the symbol of the city. As we turn the pages of history, we find that the word rickshaw comes from the Japanese word jinrikisha’, which means human-powered vehicle.

Its history goes back to the 19th century when they were invented in Japan at the beginning of a rapid period of technical advancement.
Kolkata probably is the only city in the country where the hand pulled rickshaws still ply, but they were first introduced in Shimla around 1880 before heading to Kolkata, a few years later.

For the next two centuries, the rickshaws remained an inseparable part of the city and no movie made with its backdrop as Kolkata is complete without the presence of the humble rickshaw. They remained an all-weather friend of the people running tirelessly during sultry summers and navigating roads with knee-deep waters during typical monsoons.

75-year old Prasad Paswan says, they have always proved to be of great help for sick and senior citizens, “The roads on which we ply are mainly chock-a-bloc with people and vehicles. People during emergencies seek our help to shift patients to hospitals. The battery operated rickshaws would fail to able to do half the work done by us.

Ali rightly sums up the debate on the replacement on rickshaws  by saying that government needs to hold patience and doesn’t have to try anything new as the decline in the number of hand pulled rickshaws will ensure that none are left after a few years.

“Wait for a few years and the rickshaws would become confined to the pages of history,” signs off Ali before going to offer his evening namaz as the sun set behind the agglomeration of buildings in the city.

G. Singh is a journalist who writes for different newspapers and magazines.

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