Ban fails to remove rickshaws from streets

Rickshaw-pullers are reluctant to take up a rehabilitation package offered by West Bengal because it is still the best job they can get.

An Indian hand rickshaw puller transports a passenger through a flooded street of Kolkata on July 14, 2008. Heavy overnight monsoon rains have flooded many low laying area and streets of the eastern Indian city and caused massive traffic disruption.  AFP PHOTO/Deshakalyan CHOWDHURY
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KOLKATA // Despite rickshaws being banned in Kolkata two years ago, they continue to operate as the government has not been able to provide the city's 18,000 rickshaw pullers with viable employment alternatives.

Viewing the rickshaw trade as an outdated symbol of colonialism, leaders of the ruling Communist Party of West Bengal state, of which Kolkata is the capital, launched an effort against rickshaws in 1984. It finally reached fruition in Dec 2006 when legislators passed a bill gradually phasing out all hand-pulled rickshaws after Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, West Bengal's chief minister, described the pulling of rickshaws as "a disgraceful practice that flourished when the British lorded over the people".

Last year, Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) stopped issuing licences for new rickshaws and rickshaw-pullers were asked to switch to other professions on their own if they could not accept the rehabilitation package being offered. Rickshaw-pullers and some trade unions demonstrated on the street against the ban and many prominent citizens voiced support for the environment-friendly rickshaws. Rickshaw-pullers, most of whom are illiterate migrants from neighbouring Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states, said they could not switch to alternative jobs offered by the government because they did not suit them, and if even they did, the government was providing too few positions.

"We readied some urban vocational training courses for the rickshaw -pullers, including offers of jobs for collecting fees from vehicle owners at the city's hundreds of parking lots. But none of them responded to our rehabilitation packages positively," said Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya, the mayor of Kolkata and head of KMC. "The sight of a human pulling other humans for a pittance is a blot on the image of today's Kolkata, we think. We shall make our best effort to see that finally no hand-pulled rickshaw exists on the street of Kolkata."

Anwar Hussain, an executive member of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union, said the "government wanted to provide rehabilitation only to about 2,500 licensed rickshaw-pullers while 15,500 unlicenced rickshaw-pullers and 5,000 more in allied jobs were not assured any rehabilitation". "If the government comes forward with an acceptable rehabilitation package for all of the 23,000 people involved in the trade, we shall support the removal of rickshaws from Kolkata," he said.

Kolkata rickshaw-pullers, who have been in business since the end of 19th century, have often been immortalised in books and films as a symbol of life in Kolkata. "Many westerners associate Kolkata only with the world of beggars, lepers and rickshaw-pullers. They are wrong. Kolkata is vastly different from that flawed notion," the chief minister said in 2006. While passing the rickshaw ban bill, authorities suggested that one alternative would be to provide city's licensed rickshaw-pullers with three-wheel cycle rickshaws or mechanised rickshaws, similar to the Tuk Tuks of Thailand.

Abdul Ansari, 60, a rickshaw-puller, said he was offered training to drive an auto rickshaw, but he refused because he needed a different skill and spirit, which was impossible for him to muster at his age. "What the government is attempting to do [by imposing the ban] is an anti-poor step by the Communist leaders who always said they were fighting for the poor," he said. "As long as I am allowed, I shall work day and night to earn as much as I can.

"If the police stop me from pulling my rickshaw, I shall return to my wife and children in the village. I don't want to turn into a beggar in this city where I have worked with dignity for 38 years." Being the cheapest mode of transport in the city, rickshaws cross class, caste and religious boundaries, ferrying children to school, negotiating lanes too small for other vehicles and attracting additional customers during monsoons.

"We cannot think of life in Kolkata without this rickshaw," said Nandita Chatterjee, 78, a retired businesswoman. "During heavy rain, when the city gets waterlogged, no other transport can help. If rickshaws are not there, people have to stay indoors for days sometimes." Atique Qureshi, a businessman in central Kolkata, thinks that unless the conditions of the city roads improve and an efficient sewerage network is established hand rickshaws should remain.

"Cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws can never take the places of hand rickshaws. They cannot wade through even two feet water during monsoon," he said.