Friday, July 21, 2006

Rickshaws: brief lease of life

The vain, callous and inhumane move to ban hand-pulled rickshaws in Calcutta, initiated by West Bengal chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, has been put on hold.

The Telegraph, Calcutta, reports:

Moments after the Calcutta Hackney-Carriage (Amendment) Bill, 2006, which seeks to enforce the ban, was tabled in the state legislative assembly yesterday, it was referred to a select committee for further discussion. There is little chance of the bill — contested by sections within the ruling Left Front as well as the Opposition — being passed in this session of the Assembly.

The chief minister later told reporters that he would ensure that the House approves the piece of legislation in the next session. “The plying of hand-pulled rickshaws has to be stopped. Since the Opposition wanted more time for discussion, I have relented for now. But it will be passed in the next session,” he asserted.

Speaker H.A. Halim said the bill has been referred to the select committee in an attempt to reach a consensus on the issue. “The Geneva convention speaks against man-drawn rickshaws. But many are opposed to the ban, as it will affect the livelihood of the rickshaw-pullers, mostly poor migrants from UP and Bihar.”

The bill stresses the need “to eradicate the inhuman practice of plying man-drawn rickshaws” and to “ease... traffic congestion caused by such slow-moving vehicles”.

Perhaps the wise and dynamic CM will now also similarly "ban" poverty, disease, slums, illiteracy, child labour, unemployment etc etc? Now that he has suddenly woken up to the Geneva convention, perhaps he he will invoke all the other international conventions, covenants and declarations and seek to follow those as well, to make his state a haven of humanity?

I hope the assembly members who opposed the bill will ensure that a proper rehabilitation package is prepared, so that the rickshaw-pullers' loss of legal livelihood is taken care of. But I am not optimistic. It is the rickshaw owners who are somewhat organised, and they may be able to extract something for themselves from the govt. Many of the rickshaws are also actually owned by police personnel. But will the pullers be simply left to fend for themselves?

There has been mention of replacing the rickshaws with auto-rickshaws. I cannot see the rickshaw pullers getting the auto permits, or driving them; if anything the owners may get this.

But auto-rickshaws are entirely unwholesome and undesirable. A prime instrument of air and noise pollution. They are a menace to traffic. Unsafe, severely harmful in every way. Part of a noxious lumpen under-life of the city. Most autos are illegal. Permits are given to party cadres. No civilised city should have auto-rickshaws - of the kind now used in Calcutta. I read a news report some days ago about tuk-tuks being introduced in the UK (I think it was in Brighton). But the report also mentioned the stringent pollution and safety norms that the vehicle would have to satisfy.

Rickshaw pulling does not really disrupt traffic. It is a meaningful mode of transport in particular localities, for particular functions, for both passengers and freight. The ergonomics of the hand rickshaw are superior to that of the cycle rickshaw (the model used in Calcutta). The health profile of the typical cycle-puller is far worse than that of the hand-puller.

Perhaps the matter can be taken to court through a public interest litigation, under Art. 226 of the Constitution. Through a change in a law, a livelihood that is legal is made illegal. The right to life is vitally tied to the right to livelihood. When a farmer's land is acquired by the state, he is compensated. Similarly, when a person's profession is taken away, he is entitled to compensation. Given the numbers of pullers involved, and given their poor socio-economic condition, it must be ensured that this move - on the ostensible pretext of humanity - does not drive the pullers to destitution.

The pretext of freeing roads for cars - traffic flow is also severely impeded by hawking, markets and shops on pavements and roadsides, which are organised and profited from by political cadres. Public transport is in a shambles. There has to be a long-term plan, of expanding roads as well as promoting good quality public transport and pedestrian-only spaces. This also raises the question of how long the unchecked growth of private cars will continue. Car drivers race through lanes at full speed blaring their horns at the highest volume. It is becoming impossible to keep one's sanity in the city streets. Private vehicular transport must be checked.

But who am I talking to, in this heap of skulls that is Calcutta?


Le Magnifique said...

Thank you Rama for the invitation. Having visited your fair city of Calcutta or Kolkata as you say it, I can is the most liberated city in India, forget about Mumbai, and if life brings you to San Francisco, the most liberated city in the United States, look me up.

Bonita said...

Expanding the road for efficient transport is an eventuality, but when that is done, make sure there is a side-lane, like a bike trail here in the USA, adjacent to the faster lane, for the rickshaw. That way, all forms of transport are possible.

Yves said...

I'm grateful for this update on the plight of the hapless rickshaw pullers of Calcutta whose plight I learned about long ago through Dominique LaPierre's book, City of Joy.

It reminds me too of a policy I heard of the other day whereby the slum of Dharavi in Mumbai is to be pulled down, as described here though the article I read was harrowing in its detail and cynical as to the motives of the redevelopers, who it said were out to enrich themselves at the expense of the existing slum dwellers who would be forced to move out and start another slum somewhere else.

What you say here is of great value and deserves the widest possible audience.

Lucian D.Cismigiu said...

Two years ago I spent an evening with a friend in Soho, London. Rain all of a sudden and no cabs to go home. We found a rickshaw, - a bicycle ricksha and got safely home…