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India Rickshaws Feeling the Pull of Modern Ways

State officials plan to ban Calcutta's cheap transit as demeaning. Livelihoods are at risk.

November 04, 2005|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

CALCUTTA — The state's top politician calls it inhumane. Others call it a lingering symbol of colonial oppression.

Mukundlal Shah calls it an honest day's work.

For half his life, Shah, a wiry 60-year-old with muscles like rope, has pulled a rickshaw through the noisy, dirty streets of Calcutta. Waiting patiently at street corners, Shah hawks the one thing he can offer -- brute strength.

For his pains, and his many aches as well, Shah earns about $2.50 a day.

"What's wrong with it?" he said, relaxing for a few minutes on a warm recent evening with some of his fellow rickshaw wallahs. "We're not robbing anyone. We're not thieves. We're not committing any crime."

At the moment he isn't. But by the end of the year, if the state government has its way, Shah's job will be outlawed. The time has come, officials say, to finally close a chapter on a disgraceful practice that flourished when British colonialists lorded it over the people of this land.

In modern India, advocates of the ban say, no man should have to bear another man practically on his back. After all, the Communists in China eliminated this mode of transport soon after assuming power more than half a century ago, criticizing it as primitive and demeaning.

Communists, albeit democratically elected ones, also rule Calcutta, the only place in India where rickshaws still ply the streets. Like their Chinese counterparts, Calcutta's Communist leaders have shed much of their former ideology to embrace the free market, and hand-drawn vehicles simply don't jibe with the image that politicians want to project of a shiny new city eager to welcome foreign investors.

"It is a symbol of human bondage; it is inhumane.... It must be stopped immediately," Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, chief minister of West Bengal state, was quoted as saying in August, when he announced his intention to phase out the vehicles. "Many Westerners associate Calcutta only with the world of beggars, lepers and rickshaw pullers. They are wrong. Calcutta is vastly different from that flawed notion."

It's true that in some ways this onetime capital of the British Raj has edged into the 21st century. Internet cafes beckon, high-rise hotels gleam, many a resident has a cellphone seemingly permanently attached to an ear, and Bollywood movie stars flog soft drinks on giant billboards.

But poverty remains rampant, and almost medieval, in the slums where Mother Teresa ministered to the sick and needy. Barefoot children in rags roam the alleyways, while trash and filth turn into sodden, smelly outdoor heaps in the rain.

Among the downtrodden are Calcutta's estimated 18,000 rickshaw drivers, most of whom belong to one of India's lower castes and are migrant laborers from Bihar, a dirt-poor neighboring state.

Bodies glistening with sweat in the wilting heat, they haul their passengers on their toothpick legs along the side streets they've been confined to since the government ordered them off congested main roads a few years ago. A mile-long ride costs barely more than a quarter.

The practice has also caught the notice of human rights groups, which have weighed in on the issue -- but not necessarily as one might imagine. Though acknowledging that the sight of men toiling like beasts of burden presents "an uncomfortable picture," charitable organizations such as Action Aid and the Calcutta Samaritans have come out against the rickshaw ban. They point to the consequences of throwing thousands of the city's most desperate out of work.

"The fundamental issue here is whether we can organize employment for the people," said Murad Hossain, secretary of the Hawkers Struggle Forum, a union that represents rickshaw pullers. "If the government can do that, then it can go ahead and shut it all down in a day if they want."

Hossain scoffed at the recent expressions of concern by the Communist coalition, which has held power here since 1977, that the rickshaws were an affront to human dignity. "The government should have thought of that 30 years ago," he said.

Actually, state officials did try to clear the streets of rickshaws about a decade ago, but were forced to back down after an outcry of opposition. Many here expect the newly announced ban to founder as well, or at least to languish unenforced until after elections next spring.

Rickshaws first appeared in Calcutta around the turn of the 20th century, an import from neighboring China. Updated forms considered less morally troubling -- cycle rickshaws, motorized versions -- also course through the city's streets nowadays, but the hand-pulled originals have shown surprising staying power.

Their backers describe them as a cheap, nonpolluting means of traveling short distances, especially for residents who cannot afford cars or cabs.

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