Many saw them as symbols of collective shame, but ironically, hand-pulled rickshaws in India’s eastern city of Kolkata also had an iconic aura around them.
Few cities in the country after all boasted of such a quaint mode of transport: hefty men and women sitting atop a carriage pulled by an often frail, but almost certainly profusely sweating, man through the narrow streets of the city.
In recent years though, they are sighted less often. In 2005, the provincial government declared it to be an “inhuman practice”. A law was thereafter passed amending the Calcutta (Kolkata’s earlier name) Hackney-Carriage Act of 1919 with the purpose of phasing them out.
Only about 6,000 rickshaws survive today, with the authorities having stopped giving out new licenses.
While human rights activists have welcomed the move, the rickshaw pullers are dismayed. Mostly poor migrants from the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Bihar, the government clampdown threatens their livelihoods. By some estimates, the livelihoods of more than 20,000 people are at stake as the same rickshaws are used in shifts.
Police and civic officials of the city have made matters worse. The rickshaw pullers are routinely harassed and subjected to extortion, and sometimes their carriages are confiscated. Most of them therefore prefer to ply on the inner-most streets of the city, to avoid the officials and resultant trouble.
But very occasionally, inner Kolkata is still woken up by the jangling of a small bell that a passing rickshaw puller uses as the horn. Indeed, the bell tolls for Kolkata’s last-surviving rickshaw pullers.
TEXT BY: RUBEN BANERJEE