CALCUTTA — Every day, for 12 hours on average, Ayodhya, a 35-year-old Calcutta slum dweller, turns himself into a beast of burden to feed himself, his wife and three children.
Skinny and barely five feet tall, he grabs the wooden forks of his rickshaw and lugs people through the crowded streets of Calcutta for about 15 cents a mile. On a good day, the illiterate economic migrant from Bihar, India's poorest state, clears around $2. When it rains, which is daily during the summer monsoon season, he may earn nothing.
An estimated 40,000 people, mostly boys and men, eke out a brutish living as rickshaw pullers in Calcutta, some working seasonally. Now, the powers that be have decided they don't want Ayodhya and his comrades.
Calcutta's 20,000 slow-moving "rickies," the last fleet of such human-powered conveyances in a major Indian city, are one of the reasons city traffic snakes along at an average of 5 mph, officials in West Bengal's state government say. So they plan to ban them. "Starting Jan. 1, if you come to Calcutta, you will see no rickshaws," said State Transport Minister Subhas Chakraborty.
Through a series of measures, including outlawing hand-pulled rickshaws and handcarts and building terminals on Calcutta's outskirts to keep the center clear of trucks, Chakraborty hopes to get the average traffic speed up to 12 mph within three years.
As for the people who depend on a fistful of rupees earned from rickshaw pulling, a trade plied in Calcutta for more than a century, "they will have to find some alternate job," the minister said.
Later this month, Ayodhya and thousands of other rickshaw pullers plan to halt work and gather outside Chakraborty's office to shout their protests.
"We're helpless. None of us is educated. We live in the slums. What can we do?" Ayodhya asked.
In the uncertain future of Calcutta's rickshaw pullers, social activists see a larger truth applicable to contemporary India as a whole. For more than five years, the accent has been on the country's economic development and the modernization of industry and business, with wrenching social consequences taking a back seat. West Bengal's government is desperate to lure more foreign investment, to improve Calcutta's lurid image and to make it an easier place to do business.
Ironically, ridding the city of rickshaws is an act planned by a government dominated by the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which rules in the name of the working class.
"If we have a Left Front government here," said Arun Deb, an official of Unnayan, a local grass-roots social organization, "they should think of these men's future, not just the image the rickshaw gives the city."
However, since most pullers, like Ayodhya, are from the neighboring state of Bihar, West Bengal's leaders ignore them. At a public meeting in July, Chakraborty suggested the pullers simply "go back home."
With the operators of bicycle rickshaws, who also bog down the flow of cars, buses and trucks, the politics are different. "The minister won't be able to touch them," Deb predicts. "Most are Bengalis--and unionized."
As for the rickshaw pullers, they say they have few prospects if Chakraborty's plan goes through on schedule.
"God will help us," said Ayodhya, without great conviction.