So today, we consider the humble rickshaw that has been a feature of Kolkata streets for over a century. But are they a part of the heritage that should be celebrated, or do they just provide an inhumane occupation for the downtrodden? We are of course talking man pulled rickshaws here – bicycle rickshaws and the motorised versions are a subject for another day.
First of all, where did rickshaws originate from? Well, there are differences of opinion on this but it is generally accepted by most that they originated in Japan, and more specifically Tokyo, in 1879, where they were known as jin riki shaw. Their appearance on the streets came out of the newly invented ball bearing system that made wheels turn more easily than was the case in the horse and cart era. They were preceded by the palanquin or sedan chair which required two people who carried the chair, with passenger of course, on two poles, one walker going in front and one behind the chair.
In Kolkata, use of pulled rickshaws dates back to the Colonial age when at Shimla, the summer capital for officials from the East India Company, these were used by men and women back as far as the 1880’s. In those days though, the rickshaws were made of iron and required four men to pull them, such was their weight. These were eventually replaced by the lighter wooden rickshaws emanating from Japan and China, but they still remained a status symbol, being used by the more affluent residents to stress their felt ‘importance’.
Over the years, the humble rickshaw has morphed. It started life as a means of the more aristocratic asserting their upper class status over the poorer Indians, but has become a form of livelihood for poverty stricken immigrants who come to the city from surrounding states. These poor people, unable to make a living in their own area, come into Kolkata to earn a few Rupees by pulling rickshaws.
Neither are they now used to service tourists and holiday makers. You are much more likely to see perhaps lower middle class Indians who live in the very narrow lanes using these, or their children being taken to and from school. Perhaps women being taken to market, or little corner shop owners using them to collect their supplies. They can even be used to save lives, forming emergency ambulances on occasion. They particularly come into their own during the monsoon season when roads flood so that motorised transport cannot get access. It is only at this time that the pullers can charge even half decent rates as they plough through knee deep water, keeping their passenger dry.
Rickshaws themselves have changed too, with the addition of cycle rickshaws, and rickshaws for carrying goods rather than people. Towards the end of the 20th century, it was estimated that there were some 4 million cycle rickshaws in the world. But that’s a subject for another day.
The hours for a rickshaw puller are long, probably from first light until nightfall, with perhaps a ‘siesta’ in the middle of the day. The work is hard! The pay is low! They will earn perhaps 100/150 Rupees a day on average, that’s less than £2, and since the majority don’t own their rickshaw, they have to pay around 30/50 Rupees a day to hire it. Most come from the state of Bihar and have nowhere to live – usually they sleep on their rickshaw or on the street, although some will pay to stay in a dera, a kind of rickshaw garage/workshop with some sort of sleeping space, or in a cheap bunkhouse. A study carried out some 15 years ago showed that ‘rickshaw wallahs’ stand just slightly above rag pickers and beggars on the economic hierarchy!
The debate is, are these an inhumane instrument of ‘class distinction’, or are they a way that poverty stricken migrants can keep themselves, and perhaps their families, alive? Are they seriously bad, or do they actually help people?
Well, you cannot escape from the demeaning nature of this form of transport, the fact that the passenger is sat higher up than the puller who is at his feet level, nor from the fact that the passenger is right at his back as he labours and sweats. It is one human being used like an animal to pull another along rough, hot lanes in bare feet to save the passenger walking, for just a few Rupees. You could say this is slave labour!
In most places, this form of transport has now been banned as being inhumane and degrading. In Kolkata itself, since the 1970’s, statements have been made by the powers that be, that hand pulled rickshaws will be taken off the streets. In fact, in 2006 legislation was proposed to ban their use in this city, but they are still here. Why is this?
Is it because they are part of the heritage of Kolkata? Is it because despite their inhumanity, they do provide some employment for poverty stricken migrants? It was in fact the rickshaw pullers’ own union that opposed the new legislation to ban this form of transport! At that time, there were said to be some 35,000 people involved with pulled rickshaws in Kolkata – to take away their livelihood might seem even more inhumane unless some alternative can be offered to them. Of course, one problem with this is that many rickshaw pullers, probably around 25%, operate without a license, plus, many are older! Is it because of their value when streets are flooded? Is it just down to a romanticising of an ancient form of transport? Certainly many older people, resistant to change, may see these as part of their history, and over the years, artists, poets, writers, photographers, film makers etc have been inspired by them.
The more I read up on rickshaw pullers, the more I realise that it is not as simple as it first seems. Did I use this form of transport while I was in Kolkata? No, I didn’t! To me, it would have been totally wrong and offensive for me to be pulled by another human being. It would have meant my colluding with an evil relic of Colonial days when passengers saw themselves as better than their pullers, when human dignity counted for nothing. Should I have though, bearing in mind that often these are sat around waiting for a fare? Had I used them, the puller would at least have earned a few Rupees that might have bought him some food that day.
Is it more humanitarian to ban this inhumane form of transport from the streets, or is it more humanitarian to keep it because it provides an income for the poverty stricken? Well, I’m very much with the former, but something needs to be done to provide alternative acceptable employment for those who currently rely on the pulled rickshaw for their income because they can’t afford to lose that income. And that is a challenge which faces the Indian government if the 2006 act is to be passed.
Time itself may well provide a solution, because no new licences have been granted since 2005. This means, in theory at least, that as rickshaw pullers grow old and die, this ancient and degrading form of transport will die with them!
And one final thought – what happens to a rickshaw puller who is taken ill or becomes too old to pull any more?!
Thanks for stopping by.
Until next time,
The Dorset Rambler
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