“Crammed streets bustling with people, vendors, beggars, clanging trams, taxis and the hard-to-miss light-weight wooden rickshaws pulled by sturdy men.
A shocking, barbaric act. And yet hand-pulled rickshaws are an icon of Kolkata, the city of joy, alongside the Howrah Bridge and the Victoria Memorial. What is most disheartening here is the sight of a young, healthy person pulled by a barefoot and old rickshaw-puller.
The first thought which comes to my mind for people who ride these rickshaws is, “Why can’t they walk?” However, on the other side, by denying him the ride we are cutting off his meager earning, his only source of livelihood.
Hand-pulled rickshaws became an integral part of Kolkata’s socio-economic evolution since the 19th century. Earlier, the aristocrats in the city used to ride palanquins, which were the symbol of their socio-economic status. Later, with the introduction of these rickshaws, they became a carriage of the middle class Bengali. This was their reply to the palanquins.
There are 6,000 to 8,000 hand-pulled rickshaws serving as a means of livelihood for about 35,000 people in Kolkata.They serve as popular modes of transport particularly during the monsoon when the streets are flooded with water, and when taxis or buses cannot fit in the narrow, haphazard streets.
The government of West Bengal is coming up with a rehabilitation plan for these rickshaw pullers and they will soon be replaced with battery-operated modern vehicles.
The exploitation and sufferings of rickshaw pullers are also shown in Bimal Roy’s film Do Bigha Zameen which is one of Indian cinema’s most influential productions. Balraj Sahni plays the role of a poverty-stricken rickshaw puller along with Nirupa Roy, giving us an insight of the life of rickshaw pullers.
I didn’t have the heart to sit on the hand-pulled rickshaw – pulled by an old man – as for me this seems to be shockingly inhumane. I interacted with this 70-year-old man named Ram Ghani who runs hand rickshaws on the streets of Kolkata. He takes care of his family of fifteen people and earns merely 250 to 300 rupees daily.
In a state of quandary, my thoughts were to salute these unsung heroes who burn themselves day and night on the streets of Kolkata to earn their exiguous income and not beg for money.”