Wednesday, December 20, 2006

End of Rickshaws in Kolkata: Should we miss them?

In the recent THE HINDU edition of YOUNG WORLD (the complete newspaper for children), 15 Dec 2006, Antara Das writes about recent West Bengal Government’s decision to abolish the use of hand pulled rickshaws.

The only time I ever traveled on this rickshaw was in early 1990s when I visited Kolkata for the first time in my life. My friends assured me that it’s a lifetime experience and that I should definitely take a ride. I was very uncomfortable sitting in a rickshaw that was hand pulled by a man who was barefoot, was thin and scrawny with minimal clothing. However, I succumbed to my friends’ assurances and I sat on it. That five to ten minute ride was the most uncomfortable journey that I took. I was on the edge of my seat all the time- I was uneasy and was feeling queasy. Once the ride was over. I got off and swore I would never ride one again. It was just weird being pulled by another man like that.

I always thought it was inhumane and I never liked those rickshaws. Now, that the government has decided to scrap them, I was very happy. However, Andata Das’s article sends dual message. Just look at some of her sentences.

# The article is titled “Relic on Wheels”

# “But the death knell for this archaic mode of transport has been sounded”

# “This archaic mode of transport will fade away, and with it the memories associated with the kind of experience it had to offer”

# She asks “Inhuman?” and then answers- “Rickshaws, considered a cheap, pollution free and convenient mode of transport, mainly relied on the unskilled labor…”

# “The system of one man pulling the burden of another was being increasingly considered as inhuman, given the heightened awareness about human rights,” but according to her, “…the rickshaw pullers themselves felt that their work was no less undignified…”

# “…for those accustomed to hailing the sturdy rickshaw-wallah to navigate a water logged street, it is going to be a lonely monsoon”

Antara Das seems doesn’t seem to think it is inhuman. She goes nostalgic about it. She seems to miss them actually. She thinks ‘sturdy’ men run these rickshaws. This is how Indians rationalize all inhuman acts in India. Soon, another author will write the glory days of cleaners of night soil. She will miss those days when those lower caste kids would plunge themselves into sanitary tubes to clean the mess. She will term it as cheap and pollution free methods to clean our shits.

Imagine this is what we are feeding as news to our kids. THE HINDU should have been careful!


  1. Nice post Sujai! In fact we had the same system in Tamilnadu. When I was a kid and came across the same situation near Tanjore. Its glad that the system exists no more in Kolkata.

  2. She thinks ‘sturdy’ men run these rickshaws.

    I had an uncle once say that their genes and bone structure make them capable of lifting great weights!

  3. Hey Sujai,

    You should not be too harsh on the kid. She is only 15 and odds are that these opinions are not her own by just a recycling of those of her parents and relatives.

    I have never been carried in a Kolkata type rickshaw myself and I have to admit seeing a man lug another person around appears unseemly. But I have used the bicycle type rickshaws in Delhi and when I come to think of it, I see no qualitative difference between the two. Perhaps you and others who seem to understand this issue can explain to me why it is inhumane when somebody pulls a rickshaw by his hands but not inhumane when he has a pulley to help him in the task.

    Are the bicycle type rickshaws we see in delhi also inhumane? Ultimately, it is a vehicle powered only by human muscle power. both are aided by the usage of wheels and are a vast improvement on the palanquin or the litter which I would imagine would be considered the most inhumane since there are no simple machines to make the human muscle power go a long way. A bicycle-rickshaw is an improvement on the handpulled one because of the pulley effect but it only means more milage for the same source of energy: human muscle.

    Perhaps you guys think that the bicycle rickshaw should be banned too.

    What about row boats? These are still widely used to cross rivers in India.For instance, Row boats and Punt boats are still available as public transportation to cross the ganges in around patna. These vehicles are solely powered by the human muscle.

    Are these inhumane too? Are they going to be banned next?

    If the sole criterion for hand pulled rickshaw being banned is because they involve human muscle power to carry the weight of another human being then all these other modes of transportation I've mentioned should be banned too. If there is something else which is dehumanizing then please enlighten me about it.

    Also, what exactly is dehumanizing about carrying another human being? Is it less dehumanizing if I didn't carry you but only carried your lggage? Must be because otherwise coolies at train stations and porters at hotels would be banned too.

    Finally, I am presuming that the WBngl govt has provided some alternative employment to these former rickshaw pullers.


  4. Anshuman:
    I didn't realize the author was only 15. If I had known I wouldn't have written this topic.

    You have raised many valid points. Come to think of it, yes, we seem to be quite OK with row boats, we don't feel they are dehumanizing. Or do we? I haven't sat in one of those so I can't describe my feelings.

    Coming to tricycle-rickshaws, I used to go to school on them when I was a kid, but now, I can't bear to sit in one of them.

    When I was sitting on that hand-pulled rickshaw in Kolkata, he wasn't wearing slippers, I was looking at his scrawny legs, I was feeling his heaves and pants. It was too unnerving to tell myself- 'its just his job'.

    I guess, there is a gradation in our perceptions, and they change with time.

    Come to think of it, I am not sure anymore what is human and what is inhuman? coolie lifting your luggage? I always carry my own luggage- never like to ask a coolie, but when traveling with a big group I accept it not to make a big scene. Am I not accepting it in certain cases?

    I am at a loss to rationalize my thoughts on this subject. I accepted sitting in a tricycle-rickshaw when I was a kid, but I don't sit anymore. But is it because I can now afford an auto rickshaw or a taxi?

  5. Hey Sujai,

    Forgive me, I am guilty of reading too fast or to be more precise I'm guilty to not reading carefully. I mistook the date for the author's age. So my apologies. I am glad you brought her up. If she is a college graduate, so possibly 21, her silliness deserves our criticism.

    About row boats, I have crossed the ganges on them and at that time it didn't even occur to me to equate it with a hand pulled rickshaw. But when I heard of the ban then it got me thinking about what exactly is wrong with it and then I thought about the row boat. I will never go on a row boat again but only because I am afaird it might capsize.

    About cycle rickshaws.. I find it ridiculous when young people in Delhi University board them to go to Mall road or kamla nagar(places which are within half a mile of college buildings) and then on top of it haggle with the poor soul about a few rupees(only to minutes later buy Rs 100 coffees).

    But somehow when middle aged middle or lower class women use cycle rickshaws it doesn't seem to piss me off at all.. I mean their haggling still pisses me off but atleast the lower middle class people value the rupee a lot more than your average college student and a lot closer to how much the rickshaw puller values it.

    I really think the main thing is respect.

    The person who is being employed or providing a service: his/her self respect

    and the employer( or patron): how much they respect the employee( or owner).

    I don't think any task is, in any absolute sense, menial. It is the social context which makes it demeaning or dehumanizing. It is the terms on which you intereact which makes a job dehumanzing.

    Our feudal mindset our our aversion to physical work and our belief in sins of a past life deciding the quality of the current life are factors which go into there being a serious disrespect for and dehumanization of the people who are 'below' us in the social ladder.

    I mean... you only have to see how a majority of middle class people treat their domestic helps.

  6. This is from the news item that appeared in THE HINDU (5 Dec 2006).

    # There are 5937 licensed rickshaw puller in the city.
    # The CM of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee described the century-old transport system as “shame on the city”, and observed that this inhuman mode of transport should have been withdrawn much earlier.
    # The CM said that these pullers would either be rehabilitated through self-employmentin car parking lots or be paid a reasonable amount as compensation.

  7. I do not think it is the concept of human power driving something that is disgusting, what is disgusting is the inefficient usage of human power. When a much more efficient means that is the cycle-rickshaw is available, why should a human being be subjected to the gross inefficiency of a hand-pulled one. I have absolutely no problem with people earning their living by using muscle power because there is nothing else they can contribute to society. But I think it is our duty to help them use it more efficiently. It is a resource and not using it efficiently is stupid.
    Think about it there are so many people in India who really have no skill to contribute to society except muscle power, if we prevent them from using it how would they survive ? Sure they should be educated and should find better jobs etc, but how do they survive while all that is happening ?


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