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Rickshaw Pullers Hitch Themselves to the Past

Calcutta, India, deems the human-propelled conveyances feudal and bans them from major streets. But the workers say their job is just fate.

June 15, 2003|Beth Duff-Brown | Associated Press Writer

CALCUTTA — Wiry and wrinkled from 40 years of pulling rickshaws through Calcutta's clamorous streets, Ganesh Shaw fingers the round bell that serves as his horn, rolling it like a prayer bead as he wipes sorrowful eyes with a blue plaid sarong wrapped around his waist.

Shaw is among the world's last remaining rickshaw pullers, the human horses of Calcutta both reviled and revered in the 1992 Roland Joffe film "City of Joy."

"It's our fate that we are poor, and it's our fate to pull rickshaws," said Shaw, who believes that he's about 70 years old. "I'll get senile soon and have to go back to the village, so I've got to keep earning money now."

On a good day, he earns 100 rupees -- about $2 -- by charging 10 rupees for a 10- to 15-minute ride. Nearly half of that goes to the owner of his rickshaw and the garage where 250 "rickshaw-wallahs" get two meals a day, repairs for their carts and somewhere safe to sleep.

Hunger and tuberculosis plague the pullers, but their biggest threat may be the government. Last year, the city banned rickshaws from main streets, and some officials are determined to do away with them completely.

"One man pulling another man is feudal and must be stopped," said Subrata Mukherjee, mayor of the city that Bengalis consider the intellectual heart of India. "It's not a good image for the city. They're a hazard as they sleep in the roads, they don't pay taxes and they are polluting my city."

Furthermore, he said with a sniff, most of the pullers aren't even from West Bengal state but rather from neighboring Bihar, one of India's most impoverished and backward states.

Pullers have been plying the narrow lanes of Calcutta since the turn of the century, when Chinese traders introduced rickshaws to carry their goods. In 1919, British rulers in Calcutta adopted a law that declared rickshaws a means of public transportation.

China banned rickshaws after the communists seized power more than half a century ago, and elsewhere in Asia, they are now pulled by bicycles, but the pullers have hung on in Calcutta.

There is almost no open space in this crumbling city of 10 million people and most of its streets are little more than crowded alleys too narrow for cars and buses.

The government has issued 6,000 rickshaw licenses, but most have lapsed, and an estimated 10,000 rickshaws were never licensed. The All Bengal Rickshaw Union claims to have 35,000 owners, pullers and contractors who pay yearly dues of 11 rupees, less than 25 cents.

The pullers are proud of their trade. They say they serve the poor who can't afford the bus, carry the rich along flooded streets during monsoon rains and do honest work to feed their families.

"They are not stealing, but slogging their way to earn a little," said Mukhtar Ali, general secretary of the Rickshaw Union, a dour man who sits in a dark and dusty walk-up office on Chittaranjan Avenue, a main artery from which the pullers are now banned.

"If porters can be allowed to carry luggage on their heads, why not rickshaw pullers?" he asked. "It's just another form of manual labor."

Most of the pullers came to the city after losing small family farms in Bihar, unable to keep up with the taxes and bribes that are part of daily life there.

Just off Chittaranjan Avenue, at the garage where Shaw starts his day with sweet tea and flat bread, there's a camaraderie among the men. They exchange tales about regular riders and gossip from back home while chatting under a slow-moving ceiling fan or soaping down with bucket baths.

"We are happy to live together, sharing our sorrows and joys," said R. D. Sharma, who runs the sweltering, tarpapered garage.

Subash Chakraborty, transportation minister for West Bengal, has long tried to get the men to go back to Bihar. In 1997, the state government offered to buy each rickshaw for 12,000 rupees, about $250, but there were few takers.

Chakraborty says the pullers will be gone soon anyway. "It's a natural demise. It's old technology," he said.

He declines to say how the city intends to get rid of the pullers, who are still protected by the 1919 law. The pullers say the government's approach can be seen in increasing harassment from police, who impound rickshaws and demand bribes for their return.

Chakraborty says rickshaws have outlived their usefulness in Calcutta, which has buses, electric trams, a subway line and thousands of yellow taxis.

But Lipika Parya, a middle-class mother in a saffron sari, says taxis refuse to take her the short distance between her home and the Xavier Community Center, where her 2-year-old son goes to nursery school. She doesn't want him walking the 15 minutes in the sun.

"I think it's inhumane," Parya said of the rickshaws.

"But there's no other way for either of us, and at least it's a living for them," she added while lifting little Anubhab, in matching blue necktie and shorts, into the rickshaw, where they are shaded by an accordion cloth canopy. "I feel badly for them, but what can I do about it?"

Several parents who have regular rickshaw pickups for their children said they tip their pullers at the annual Deewali holiday or the end of the school term.

Arish Rao, manager of a small restaurant, also has conflicting feelings about riding in rickshaws.

"I use them when there is a need, like an emergency, but I'm ashamed of myself when I take one," he said. "Yet the city can't ban them. We need them and they need us to feed themselves."

Few of the rickshaw wallahs give the argument much thought.

"Perhaps it is wrong for one man to pull another, below our human dignity," said Yanki Yadav, 35, who sends money to his six children back in Bihar. "But it's God's will, so we don't contemplate such things."

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