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Calcutta 1981

Jean Racine

Session III. B. Tackling the Crisis

Addendum K. Whom Does One Plan For?

A Case Study of Rickshaws and Rickshawallahs of Calcutta

The Statesman et Unnayan

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1Some twenty or thirty years after their creation in Japan, the hand-rickshaws —a seat for two passengers, two high wooden wheels, a puller between the shafts— were introduced in Calcutta around 1900, by the Chinese community, for the transportation of parcels. In 1914, the transport of passengers was allowed. A few decades after, the Chinese rickshawallahs were supplanted by other immigrants, most of them from Bihar. Today, Calcutta is the only large city where this type of transport is still practiced. In other Indian cities cycle-rickshaws took over after the ban on hand-rickshaws.

2For all those who live in or tour Calcutta, the hand-rickshaw is a foremost component of the city image. It is also a perfect Symbol of the poverty of the city, of the city's poor. But is not just a curiosity: the 80,000-100,000 rickshawallahs of Calcutta form no less than the most important group amongst the informal sector workers in Calcutta Corporation.

3That is why it seemed useful to present here an addendum on Calcutta rickshaws and their pullers, the rickshawallahs.

4How does the rickshawallah live? Who is he? A case study published in 1977 in The Statesman series, "How the Other Half Lives" answers this question. How is the trade organized, what is the economics of this type of public but individual transport, which is less expensive than the taxi, much more costly than buses or trains, but always available and (with the exception of the business district centre and a few major streets where rickshaws cannot enter) able to take you exactly where you wish to go, even in the lanes, and even during flood? Lastly, what are the arguments in the thirty year old debate —revived in 1981 by a government project— to impound and destroy the unlicensed rickshaws, i.e., five out of six? Unnayan Association, after a detailed enquiry, here provides some answers, which shed light on the importance of the trade and the choices by which the rickshawallahs, the proletarians by excellence, become paradoxically the victims of the Left Front policy aimed at solving the crisis of urban transport. Once again, the question arises: Whom does one plan for? For whom does one develop the city?


The Statesman1

  • 1 An account by a Staff Correspondent, published in The Statesman 23 October 1977, in the series "Ho (...)

5He is short and slight, no more than five feet and two or three inches in his bare, splay-toed feet. The sparse frame is wiry with stringy muscles and his work-thickened hands seem too big for thin arms and slooping shoulders as he carefully cups a bidi to his mouth. His creased face is deeply sunburnt and leathery, the corners of his eyes crow-footed through squinting at the glare. His name is Nabud Ali, "you can say about 50 years old," and he has been a Calcutta rickshaw-puller for the past 30 years.

  • 2 The cotton cloth wrapped around the hips, typical of the Muslims (J.R.).

6Nabud's day Starts at 4 p.m., just before the evening rush hour is due to begin. Wearing a faded check lungi2 and a loose cotton vest, his feet bare, he takes a rented rickshaw, No.56, out into the streets. He works till midnight, carrying five to ten fares on an average day and earning between Rs. 10 and Rs. 15. "Sometimes it's more and sometimes it's less", he says in Hindustani, worried because he can’t provide exact figures. "Late in the evening I wait near the Park Street-Wellesley Crossing. The sahibs coming out of the big hotels then are usually in a good mood. Sometimes they give me as much as five rupees for a short ride".

  • 3 A roadside cheap restaurant (J.R.).

7Around midnight, he rattles the empty rickshaw through the narrow lanes behind Ripon Street to a late night dhaba3 for his simple dinner. It consists of chapatis or rice, dal and vegetables and as a once-a-week treat, a little meat. Dinner usually costs a rupee. Then —the clanking brass bell with which he attracts fares or clears his way though traffic now silent— he wends his way through deserted streets to Taltolla where he shares a room with 24 other rickshaw-pullers. He pays Rs. 3 a month for sleeping space. Tomorrow is another long day.

  • 4 His native village (J.R.).

8Nabud Ali left his muluk4 near Muzzafarpur, where his family were share croppers to earn a steady income in the city. He had never seen a man-drawn rickshaw before. "Yes, the city was very different then, so long ago", he says, gazing into the smoke from his bidi and trying to recall the past. "The lights were very small and dim. And the roads were quiet and not full of holes and ditches as they are now. My meals would only cost me five or six paise. And of course there were a lot of English sahibs then who were very open-handed with money".

9Thirty years later, little has changed in Nabud's private life. His people in Muzzafarpur are still sharecroppers and he still does not own the rickshaw he pulls...The sardar who collects the money every day for the owner, who has about 150 rickshaws, charges a daily rental of Rs. 3. The puller's licence costs Rs. 5 and annual renewal at the Vehicle Department costs a rupee.

10Nabud usually takes Saturdays off, getting a budlee to work for him. But though Saturday is a day of rest, there is not much recreation. He cannot remember when he last went to the cinema. He does not play cards. "All these things are not for us", he says, "I try to send at least Rs. 100 a month to my family. The rest of the money pays for food and other expenses". His only indulgence is the occasional bidi.

11The work is a hard grind. But Nabud Ali does not think of it as degrading. "Some people push carts, others wash clothes or Utensils for a living, I pull a rickshaw. What is there to feel bad in that? It is only a way of filling one's belly". He has seen cycle-rickshaws in Muzzafarpur and even driven one, but he does not think them suitable for Calcutta. "The traffic is bad enough as it is".

12Once a year Nabud returns to Muzzafarpur to spend a couple of months with his wife and children. "I usually go in winter", he says. The monsoon months when streets are water-logged are the best time to earn money. He rests in Muzzafarpur helping out with a little work if there is any to be done. Nabud has two sons, the eldest "must be 12 or 14 years" old. Neither is literate; both work in the fields. His wife and sons have never been to Calcutta, never seen a rickshaw-puller's life in the city. "They don't know how hard it is" says Nabud. "I would never let my sons become rickshawallahs". Yet he has no plans for their future. "Perhaps", he says with sudden almost childlike hope in his voice," some big person will give them a job, employ them " The words falter as the vision fades.

13Nabud does not know how long he will be able to carry on in such demanding work. He is getting old. "Perhaps another two or three years", he says, "as long as I can manage". Then he will retire to Muzzafarpur and to a sharecropper's life, to the constant anxiety of trying to make ends meet. But he is still a rickshawallah, proudly confident of his skill and stamina.

14"I can still take passengers all the way from central Calcutta to Howrah or Ballygunge. I've often done it. Or sometimes three of them insist on getting in. But I can manage all right", he says jauntily. " It was far more difficult when I first began. I was a young man then, but not used to such hard work. It was heavy, very tiring. Now it comes easily enough".

15A veteran, Nabud is wily in the ways of the city. He knows the many moods and rhythms of its streets, the hazards and the possible dangers. Bobbing and weaving his way through traffic-snarled crossings, he has never so far had a major accident, he says, briefly touching his palms in invocation. Nor despite the late and lonely hours of his work, has he ever been waylaid or robbed. But he has twice had trouble with the police. "They said it was a "No Entry" road. They always find some offence or other". He was fined Rs. 5 on each occasion. The memory of that loss causes a wince of pain even after all these years.

16Nabud is aware of, but not particularly interested in, politics. "Yes, they carne to us before the elections and took down all our names". He admits to voting but will not reveal his choice. But it is difficult to say whether ignorance or respect for the secret ballot explains his reticence. Years of handling difficult passengers and occasional brushes with a truculent and unsympathetic officialdom have made Nabud inscrustable. His seamed face gives away nothing.

17"AH this rumpus about which government comes in and which one goes out means very little to simple people like us", he pleads. "They come and go, our work remains the same". Then he pinches out the stub of his bidi and carefully puts it by, picks up the shafts of his rickshaw and trundles off in search of a fare, the spoked wheel clacking, the brass bell jingling. A good passenger could mean mutton curry for dinner.


Jean Racine from an "Unnayan" appraisal5

  • 5 The Editor prepared this note from information collected from: Unnayan and Th. Thomas: Rickshaws i (...)

18There are about 35,000, possibly 50,000 hand-rickshaws in the city, with an estimated 75,000-100,000 pullers. The number of workers directly or indirectly involved in the hand-rickshaw trade represents around 8 per cent of the total working population in the hand-rickshaw zone (i.e., mainly Calcutta city) of the Calcutta Metropolitan District. It therefore supports more than one lakh of families or even half a million people living in Calcutta and its hinterland.

19Ninety two per cent of the pullers come from Bihar, mainly from three rural districts of the heavily populated Gangetic Plain: Muzzafarpur, Samastipur, Monghyr. They maintain normally a dual residence both in Calcutta and in their native villages where their families live. Ninety six per cent of the pullers are married, but only 7 per cent have their familles in the city. Most of the money earned is sent to the villages, and rickshawallahs live as cheaply as possible in Calcutta. They have evolved a style of community life in which 20 to 25 members rent a common kitchen and room in which to store their belongings. Members take turns in preparing meals for which a daily levy is collected. Breakfast is hardly ever eaten; a meal of chhatu (a powdered pulse) is eaten in the early afternoon; chapati and dal in the evening. Sleeping accommodation is commonly the pavement or a verandah, but some rickshaw owners provide sleeping space in the rickshaw garages. A few pullers obtain living space by acting as night watchmen in factories or shops. A puller who owns land usually returns to his village for a month or more every year to see his family and attend to either sowing or harvesting. Muslim pullers (29 per cent against 71 per cent Hindus according to the Unnayan sample survey 1980) are generally landless, and spend less time in their villages. Rickshaw-pulling appears to be the first choice of the unskilled rural migrants from Bihar, whereas migrants from West Bengal will first try hawking or factory work and treat rickshaw-pulling as a last resort.

20Very few pullers own their vehicle —less than one in a hundred. The puller usually rents his rickshaw from the fleet of an owner, on a shift basis (two shifts a day for one vehicle). The average fleet size appears to be 5 to 25 vehicles, of which in many cases only a part is licensed.

21The owners of rickshaws, like their pullers, are primarily non-Bengalis. Only about a quarter of the owners are or have been pullers. The majority have not worked their way up from the bottom, and many combine ownership of rickshaws with ownership of slum property, cattle sheds and other informal sector assets. Rickshaw owners may be people with considerable influence: the President of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union (the oldest owners association) was the Deputy Speaker of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly (1977-1982), and it seems that many members of the Calcutta Police force are owners of rickshaw fleets. Most passengers board rickshaws for a trip of one to two kilometers. With an average of seven or eight trips a shift, that gives an income of Rs. 12 or 13. For a half day shift, the owner takes Rs. 2. The puller retains Rs. 10.50. Taking into account the yearly stay in his village and his higher earnings during days of flood and festivals, the puller's annual income is thus around Rs. 3,500, of which roughly two-thirds are posted home to support dependents. For the owner, the hiring gives a return on investment of over 150 per cent after deduction of his expenses (repairs, licence, tax, his agent's salary, garaging if any): a vehicle costs Rs. 600, and brings in Rs. 1,000 a year.

22About 700,000 one-way passenger trips a day are made by hand-rickshaws in the Corporation area: roughly the same figure as the number of trips made in trams every day, and more than 10 per cent of the total number of daily trips (6.8 million) made in Calcutta. One-third of hand-rickshaw movements entail goods or baggages as well as people: goods carriage is a major activity near all central markets, especially Sealdah, Machuabazar and Posta.

23Overall, of the Rs. 28 crore estimated to be paid annually in hand-rickshaw fares, about Rs. 24 crore are the main income for some 75,000 pullers and their families: Rs. 1 crore are spent on repairs, agents, garaging, etc. About Rs. 3.2 lakh are paid in direct taxation; and nearly Rs. 3 crore are somehow divided between the owners and the recipients of bribes.

The problem of unlicensed rickshaws: a question of traffic, or a question of planning?

24Why bribes? Because only 6,000 rickshaws hold a regular licence from the Calcutta Corporation. The rest —30,000 or 45,000 vehicles— ply illegally, and are subject to penalty, confiscation, destruction, or illegal levy by way of bribes.

  • 6 Hand Rickshaws in Calcutta. Facts and Issues, Unnayan, 1982, p. 19.

25The existence of so many unlicensed vehicles brought the present West Bengal government to try to eradicate most of the rickshaws, which are accused of obstructing the traffic. And here we come to the intricate problem of planning and administration of the city. Pavement-dwellers obstruct the pavements. Hawkers obstruct pavements and streets. Rickshaws obstruct traffic flow. So what to do with them? They are underprivileged people, petty citizens, but they play their role, a decisive role, in city life. And the comments of Unnayan on that point give the true perspective of the proposed ban of unlicensed rickshaws within the larger framework of the place and the role of the informal sector in Calcutta. Here are the main extracts of these comments6.

"On 21st September 1981, an amendment to the Hackney Carriage Act of 1919 was passed in the West Bengal State Assembly which, when and if implemented, is likely to bring to a virtual end the service of hand-rickshaws in Calcutta (it is presently awaiting the Government's assent). This legislation however, which is designed to enforce the impounding and destruction of unlicensed rickshaws, in many senses bring to a head not only the longstanding controversy over whether to ban rickshaws in Calcutta, going on now for over 30 years, but also the wider situation of the confrontation between the authorities and the formal sector on the one side, and the huge, unorganized, so-called "informal sector" in Calcutta The rickshaw situation is symbolic of a polarization that is taking place in our cities between a privileged minority with a particular set of values and a huge and increasingly marginalized majority of the poor. We believe that this polarization is, in one sense, a direct outcome of the nature and structure of present Systems of planning and decision-making. In this sense, and particularly in the context of the surprising fact of legislation of this nature being put forward by a left government, we believe that all are victims: not only the 60,000-90,000 pullers or the lakhs of households, or the businesses which will be affected, but also the planners and the government, all of us in fact, victims of a set of values and an unscientific decision-making process, both of which need challenging and change. We believe the legislation needs re-examination, but we believe also that this must take place in the context of a wider reconsideration: it is definitely not just a question of keeping rickshaws or banning rickshaws.

Despite their age, rickshaws continue to be used throughout the city, and remain one of the more heavily used Systems of transport in Calcutta, by all types of people-householders, shopkeepers, businessmen, small manufacturers, school children, and as ambulances. Most vehicles, however, are not licensed (only 6,000 out of a total of perhaps 35,000-50,000), since the licensable number was fixed at 6,000 in 1939, over 40 years ago. For the past thirty years and more, their continued existence has however been questioned, especially by government planners, for reasons such as "they are slow-moving" and they thereby cause congestion on the streets. At the same time, because of the "illegal" status imposed on 90 per cent of the vehicles plying, the trade —like so many others in Calcutta— is riddled with exploitation.

If the proposed legislation is enforced, it will have drastic effects: since some 30,000-45,000 rickshaws are unlicensed, some 60,000-90,000 pullers will become unemployed, as well as further people employed in ancillary industries; there are no plans for alternative jobs. The rickshaws account for over 10 per cent of the estimated 6.8 million trips made in Calcutta every weekday —so lakhs of households and businesses will have to find other ways of moving around in this city, where transport is already so inadequate. There will be widespread disruption.

There is also the question of social justice: the legislation, whether by design or inadvertently, only serves to reinforce the already dominant position of licensed owners, who will remain unaffected. Their 6,000 licences —the last new one was issued by the government in 1944— are renewed every year, and new applications are never entertained. If the Government's reasons for removal of rickshaws stand (that it is a supposedly inhuman trade and a mode of transport that supposedly causes traffic jams because it is slow-moving), then why are these few protected? It is not acceptable that the reasons should be "that this is what the law says" or that many policeman are said to be owners, or that the President of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union, the oldest owners Union, is the Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Assembly.

It is also argued that it is "reactionary" or "conservative" to think of rataining rickshaws, and that given all of Calcutta's problems there is a need to be progressive, in this and other fields. We suggest that the focus of this concern is misplaced, even confused: firstly, it is really "progressive" to get rid of rickshaws, "conservative " to keep them? We believe it is not necessarily so, and it is much more conservative just to get rid of them but to protect the status quo where the ownership of transport in the city —as in all other fields— is concentrated in the hands of a few.

Rickshawallahs, and the uncertainty they are facing, are typical of a large part of Calcutta's life. Some 40-50 per cent of the city's workforce, is employed in what is called the "informal sector" of which all the so-called "illegal" rickshaws and their pullers form a part. This means millions of people are —officially— not fully within the scope of the law and of regulations (although there are many informal arrangements such as bribes and settlements by which the legal, official world reaches this sector and an uneasy and usually exploitative balance is maintained). Despite the scale of this situation most "planning" decisions which have tired to regulate the city's life have seen this sector as an obstacle and have —as in the case of rickshaws— tired to deal with problems by confrontation and exercise of authority (another recent example is the attempt, now stayed by the Supreme Court, to evict a quarter of a million pavement dwellers in Bombay). The problem is complicated and much deeper than simply evasion of law. People such as rickshawallahs are also citizens, and they provide what are certainly useful and even essential services to the city. Indeed, on such a scale, where half the population of the city is supposedly on the wrong side of the law, the very relevance of existing regulations and the meaning of what is "legal" come into question....

The hand-rickshaw, the many role that it plays in the life of Calcutta, and the question of whether to ban it or retain it, are symbolic of a much wider process of change and "development" that is increasingly affecting all of us".

26A few weeks after those lines were published, on 10 March 1982, the Left Front Government started seizing the "unlicensed rickshaws", and faced a certain amount of criticism from the Calcutta press despite the assurance given that a compensation of Rs. 2,000 would be offered to each rickshawallah affected. It soon appeared, as it should have been expected, that false licenses were issued against bribes. The scheme then went into decline and was only reactivated from 1 March 1983.... after the government took some preventive measures against corruption in the police ranks and nominated a Joint Police Commissioner apparently in charge of tackling schemes affecting rickshawallahs and hawkers for the good cause of fluid traffic. Once again, the old debate is open: what recognition does the informal sector deserve in an economic order unable to provide food and shelter to all city-dwellers within the framework of the law?

Notes de fin

1 An account by a Staff Correspondent, published in The Statesman 23 October 1977, in the series "How the Other Half Lives", under the title "Pulling for Dear Life". By courtesy The Statesman (J.R.).

2 The cotton cloth wrapped around the hips, typical of the Muslims (J.R.).

3 A roadside cheap restaurant (J.R.).

4 His native village (J.R.).

5 The Editor prepared this note from information collected from: Unnayan and Th. Thomas: Rickshaws in Calcutta, Unnayan, 1981 by courtesy Unnayan (J.R.).

6 Hand Rickshaws in Calcutta. Facts and Issues, Unnayan, 1982, p. 19.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1990

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