It is a classic image of Kolkata: scrawny, spindly-legged men, often in advanced middle-age and barefoot, pulling passengers through the streets in rickshaws. According to a vote taken last month by the city legislative council, however, the hand-pulled rickshaw may soon be a relic of the past. The city has banned the practice as “inhumane.”
Kolkata is the last major city in the world where hand-pulled rickshaws carry passengers. China, where the rickshaw was invented, outlawed the “bourgouis and exploitative” practice in 1949, during the early days of the Cultural Revolution. Now, politicians in West Bengal are hoping to follow suit. Says the Chief Minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharya, “We have taken a policy decision to take the hand-drawn rickshaw off the roads of Calcutta on humanitarian grounds. Nowhere else in the world does this practice exist and we think it should also cease to exist in Calcutta. It is inhumane.”
Are hand-pulled rickshaws inhumane?
Not if you ask the people who pull them. “Running a rickshaw is no more inhumane than working in the mines or in the fields,” says Somen Mitra, leader of the Kolkata Rickshaw Pullers Union. The comprison with other hard, honest physical labor is a fair one. In fact, one must ask: in a city in which a depth and diversity of inhumanity is on display as though it were a carefully curated museum of civil cruelty, why the fuss about rickshaws? No one seems to complain when low-caste bungees are put to work clearing blocked sewage pipes by hand. Police officers can be seen buying chai and snacks from small children at shops along the footpaths, rather than arresting the proprietors for violation of the state’s unenforced child labor laws. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 children who live on the streets of Kolkata. The tens of thousands of women who are burned to death or grossly disfigured each year by their husbands are disregarded, and the crimes go unpunished, as community officials speak about the need to do something about “cooking accidents.”
So why single-out hand-pulled rickshaws?
As so often turns out, it has nothing to do with ethics, despite the rhetoric of the politicians. The traffic of Kolkata is a mess, snarled in a perpetual knot. Vehicular travel across the city is becoming all but impossible as more-and-more cars and trucks choke the roads, and me-first anarchy banishes any notion of orderly passage. And though they are pulled at the margins of the roadways and usually at a running trot, the slow-moving rickshaws are being scapegoated.
ActionAid India estimates that there are more than 18,000 rickshaws plying the streets of Kolkata, nearly 6,000 of whom are registered with the city government. During Kolkata’s monsoon rains, when the streets are regularly flooded, rickshaws are a used widely, even for trips as short as across the street. The rickshaw-wallahs are also busy during the sweltering months of spring and summer, when walking the streets can seem a hellish ordeal. During these times, the Rickshaw Puller’s Union claims that its members earn approximately Rs. 100 ($2.25) per day, though this figure is almost surely exaggerated. (The union is preparing to commence negotiations for compensation for the pullers, in the event the ban is actually enforced.) During the cool days of late autum and winter, most rickshaw-wallahs sit idle, clanking their dull-timbred bells against the wooden rails of the rickshaws in vain hope of attracting a passenger. These men are poor to the point of near destitution, living on the pavement and unable to support families.
The pullers who are able to earn, at least a little, during any time of year, are those who deliver tens of thousands of children to school. Rosalie Giffoniello, whose Kolkata-based NGO Empower the Children runs educational programs throughout the city, says she cannot imagine how kids will get to school if the rickshaws are actually removed from the streets.
It’s far too early to tell whether the ban will go into effect, or when. Kolkata passed a similar law outlawing rickshaws in 1996, only to see it overturned after city-wide protests, led by the trade unions. The city subsequently offered a payment of Rs. 7,000 ($155) for every rickshaw that was voluntarily turned in. None were.