The rickshaw puller of Kolkata, the only city in India to have the hand pulled rickshaw. Muffled up to face the winter chill, he cannot quite hide his frail frame or toothless gums. He ‘enjoys’ a brief respite and fiddles with a pink radio, perhaps gifted by a doting daughter or grand-daughter.
The very concept of people physically lugging their counterparts around the city, often bare feet, is disturbing to say the least. Yet they continue to ply the streets of Kolkata providing a cheap and reliable transportation for short distances, especially convenient for schoolchildren. Which is not to say adults do not use them. They do and indeed even I have also utilized their services. Several years ago.
To ride or not to ride this anachronistic symbol of human degradation is a tricky question. We can easily take the moral high ground and shun them (like I do now). There are numerous other and indeed more convenient modes of transport. But the fact is that our ‘clear conscience’ is not going to fill their empty stomachs. They are eager to take you for a drive and idle time is not a matter of ‘enjoyment’ but a matter of concern.They may just have to go to bed hungry in order to honor our commitment to eradicating ‘social injustice’.
Looking at them, interacting with them, their fortitude, stoicism and innocent smiles as they battle the elements and extreme weather conditions – blistering summers, torrential downpours, flooded streets, chilly winds (and pay part of their meager earnings to battle their court case) – resilient is what comes to mind.
Along with respect and admiration.
Additional note: In 2006, the West Bengal State Government made arrangements to ban hand pulled rickshaws but concerns about their means of livelihood took the matter to court, where it is still stuck, mired in bureaucratic red-tape and political agendas. But a stop has been put on new registration of rickshaw pullers. Currently, there are reportedly about 6000 registered rickshaw pullers although according to some there are about 25,000 unregistered pullers. There is some talk of battery-operated rickshaws but that is still to see the light of day. But implementing these is also not a simple matter. Those who have been running the streets for 50 years are not too keen on learning new techniques at their age.
Till the hand pulled rickshaw is completely phased out or they are rehabilitated, I for one would advise visitors to try the rickshaw. With a rider. Please do not haggle with the pullers.
Thanks for visiting – would love to know your reactions, comments and suggestions.