The rickshaw pullers of Kolkata

The April issue of National Geographic has a nice feature on the rickshaw pullers of Kolkata, including aRickshaw
collection of Ami Vitale’s riveting photos on an endangered occupation. I’ve been on cycle rickshaws before, but never even seen the hand-pulled ones, which seem to belong to a bygone era, when the invention of the wheel transformed the ancient public transportation system, eliminating the need for piggy-back rides.

In the narrow side streets known as the lanes, loud honking is the
signal that a taxi or even a small truck is about to round the corner
and come barreling down a space not meant for anything wider than a
bicycle. But occasionally, during a brief lull in the honking, I’d hear
the tinkling of a bell behind me. An American who has watched too many
Hallmark Christmas specials might turn around half expecting to see a
pair of draft horses pulling a sleigh through snowy woods. But what
came into view was a rickshaw. Instead of being pulled by a horse, it
was being pulled by a man—usually a skinny, bedraggled, barefoot man
who didn’t look quite up to the task. [Link]

They’re skinny, bedraggled and barefoot, but undoubtedly possess more strength and endurance than many professional athletes, particularly the ones who hit balls into holes. Looking at Vitale’s pictures, I can’t help feeling a mixture of awe and sympathy. They work so hard for so little. But they make an honest living and provide a good service. And they’re in relatively good health, though one of them did suffer a heart attack recently when a customer gave him a tip.

For years the government has been talking about eliminating hand-pulled
rickshaws on what it calls humanitarian grounds—principally on the
ground that, as the mayor of Kolkata has often said, it is offensive to
see “one man sweating and straining to pull another man.” [Link]

Humanitarian grounds? I wonder if the mayor has told the rickshaw wallahs about this.

Mayor: "We feel sorry for you and we want to help you."

Rickshaw wallah: "Thank you, kind sir. How are you going to help us?"

Mayor: "We are going to eliminate your jobs."

Rickshaw wallah: "Oh thank you. Thank you so much. We really didn’t like such demeaning jobs."

Mayor: "What are you going to do now?"

Rickshaw wallah: "Oh, probably what we were doing before: begging."

When I asked one rickshaw wallah if he thought the government’s plan to
rid the city of rickshaws was based on a genuine interest in his
welfare, he smiled, with a quick shake of his head—a gesture I
interpreted to mean, “If you are so naive as to ask such a question, I
will answer it, but it is not worth wasting words on.” Some rickshaw
wallahs I met were resigned to the imminent end of their livelihood and
pin their hopes on being offered something in its place. … One day a city official handed me a report from the municipal
government laying out options for how rickshaw wallahs might be
rehabilitated.

“Which option has been chosen?” I asked, noting that the report was dated almost exactly a year before my visit.

“That hasn’t been decided,” he said.

“When will it be decided?”

“That hasn’t been decided,” he said. [Link]

But you have to give the government credit. They have at least called a meeting to decide when they’re going to decide when they’re going to decide.

If you enjoyed this piece, you'll love Melvin's novel Bala Takes the Plunge, available in North America through Amazon.com and McNallyRobinson.com You can also find it at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. A number of readers have written reviews of the novel. An excerpt of the novel can be read here.

Comments

  1. Fantastic article. Please send it for publication in some newspaper or magazine from West Bengal- I would suggest- Telegraph or Statesman. It will come to the notice of those WB government fellows and something positive might come out from it.

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