India 2008: Man vs. Machine

As men we have to earn to live and feed our families,” says Sukhdeo Rai, one of some 18,000 Calcutta peasants who still labor pulling rickshaws the old way—by hand. “We rickshaw wallahs do not steal. We are honest. We earn and we send money home.”

Even in this city of intense poverty the rickshaw wallahs are marginal citizens, most from the poorest states—Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand. In India’s social caste system, they belong to the lowliest strata. Here in Calcutta they ply India’s last 6,000 licensed “man-drawn” rickshaws. But Sukhdeo Rai and his brethren are fighting for their livelihoods.

Already under pressure in an increasingly affluent petroleum-fueled economy, the rickshaw wallahs face another threat: West Bengal’s Marxist government has amended licensing rules in an attempt to abolish the hand-pulled rickshaws on the grounds that they are inhuman. Moreover, the rickshaws are seen as clashing with efforts to modernize a city that has proudly but undeniably languished in squalor.

Since 1914, when the Chinese introduced their version of the original Japanese jinrikishas, men from Calcutta’s hinterland have traveled to the city of fables, in search of the gold that their forebears once said paved the streets. Three generations of some families have worked pulling rickshaws, living in makeshift garages called deras. Most wallahs don’t own their vehicle; they lease it from a middleman, who in turn rents it from the owner.

Rai, who is in his early thirties, says he dropped out of school after eight years and left his village in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district (as famous for its poverty, lawlessness, and caste politics as it is for the most luscious lychees in India) to drive a taxi in Calcutta. But after seven years of unpredictable, occasionally violent passengers and “being treated like a dog” by every traffic policeman on the lookout for extra cash, he traded in his driver’s license for a license to pull rickshaws. Now, out of a daily income of three or four dollars, he sends half home. With the rest he rents the vehicle and the room he shares with four others and pays for food and occasional entertainment.

Despite the new regulations, Rai believes he will be able to carry on for several more years. “We have been barred from the big roads, where the motorized rickshaws operate,” he says. “Eventually we will be barred from the inner roads.”

Abolishing hand-pulled rickshaws is not going to be easy. The wallahs and owners have banded together under the All Bengal Rickshaw Pullers Union to fight, and the dispute is now in the Calcutta High Court. They have found sympathy for their cause among intellectuals as well as the customers who rely on them.

These customers, especially those in areas prone to flooding during the monsoons (when motor vehicles can be rendered useless), argue that the hand-pulled rickshaw fulfills a need. For women with children and for some elderly, it is an ideal mode of transport, as it is for small retailers, who use it as a cart for goods. Proponents have also put forth compelling environmental arguments, noting that hand-pulled rickshaws emit none of the eye-watering fumes spewed by autorickshaws, taxis, and buses.

Whatever happens, Sukhdeo Rai knows the sectors that matter in India’s growth story have no place for the millions like him. All he wants is the opportunity to work so he can educate his sons, and “if fate is kind,” he says, “they will come to Calcutta and find employment—as a security guard or in some office.”

Shikha Mukerjee, a former political editor of The Times of India, is now a freelance journalist and heads the Paul Foundation in Calcutta.