Kolkata is a city that is an amalgamation of the old and new. A city that is being modernised everyday but still manages to hold on to the old charm vibe. It is the only city in India to have various modes of transportation, dating back to the British era. The first city in India to construct a metro rail, it is now the only city in the world that continues to operate licensed hand-pulled rickshaws (called tana rickshawin Bengali) as a mode of public transport. One can still see the tram cars and hand-pulled rickshaws plying on the narrow bylanes of Kolkata.
The word ‘rickshaw’ originates from the Japanese word ‘Jin-riki-sha’ (jin meaning human, riki meaning power, and sha meaning vehicle; which translates to human-powered vehicle). The hand-pulled rickshaw was invented in Japan in 1869 and was introduced in China by 1874. Unlike previous modes of transport, like kago, sedan chairs, etc. which needed two persons to carry, the rickshaw had the significant advantage of being driven by a single person. The following decades witnessed a boom of hand-pulled rickshaws in Japan, China, Singapore, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. They served as cheap means of transportation and provided employment to millions of poor working-class families living in cities.
The British were the dominant colonial power in Asia and the usage of a human to pull another human definitely served in reinforcing the master-slave power hierarchy. Post World War II, colonialism declined in Asia and the hand-pulled rickshaw faded out of use from erstwhile British colonies. Strangely, the legacy of rickshaws continued in Calcutta long after the British Empire was gone (1947), and long after the communist government in China banned (1949) the use of rickshaws. Not only did it survive in Calcutta but the tenacious hand-pulled rickshaw has become an icon of the metropolis.
A Staple to Kolkata’s Culture
Kolkata’s hand-pulled rickshaws are mentioned in many literary books and featured in films of different languages. It plays the protagonist in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Phantom Rickshaw’. The story is set in Shimla of the 1980s. Greg Vore, an international travel photographer, researched on the life, role and history of hand-pulled rickshaws in Kolkata and Bangladesh. Bimal Roy’s classic Do Bigha Zamin (released in 1953) tells the story of a farmer who becomes a rickshaw wallah in the then Calcutta.
Present Situation of Rickshaw: How They Are Doing
The hand-pulled rickshaw survives due to a number of socio-economic reasons peculiar to Kolkata. Firstly, pulling a rickshaw does not require skill; it requires hard physical labour. Unemployed and unskilled labourers find employment as rickshaw pullers in Kolkata. They do not undergo any training or require a driver’s license to operate. Most rickshaw pullers do not even know the names of the roads they ply their trade on, nor do they understand the various traffic symbols. This is because they are mostly illiterate and speak Hindi instead of the local Bengali. Many rickshaw pullers do not even own the vehicles themselves, but rent them from sardars (rickshaw owners) who own khatals (rickshaw garages). This arrangement evolved because many rickshaw pullers are either too poor or seasonal migrants, plying the rickshaws only for a few months when their fields back home lie fallow.
Today, due to declining popularity and availability of other modes of transport, rickshaw pullers earn a meagre amount and mostly live on the streets, saving every rupee to send to their families. Added to this are costs for food and rent paid to sardars, after which they are left with very little money for themselves. Many turn to alcohol and suffer from various diseases and medical problems associated with old age and the physical stress of the job.
Kolkata does currently have 18,000 rickshaw pullers and 6000 rickshaws, though not all of them are licensed by the municipality.
The “Ban” for Rickshaws: The Efforts to Demolish The Rickshaw Transportation
Kolkata has faced much flak due to the existence of this colonial relic. In 2006, the state government tried permanently banning these rickshaws by the passing of the Calcutta Hackney-Carriage (Amendment) Bill, but it was never implemented. Nothing has changed after the change of government in 2011, though promises were made about replacing the licensed hand-pulled rickshaws with electric or cycle rickshaws. If these rickshaws need to be permanently removed from the streets, a justifiable solution needs to be worked out to ensure proper rehabilitation for all the people directly and indirectly attached to the trade.
The Positive Side: Why Hand-pulled Rickshaws Are Relevant To Kolkata
The narrowed urban planning of Kolkata has also played a part in the continuance of this mode of transportation. Due to poor drainage, streets in low-lying areas get flooded frequently. During heavy monsoons, the hand-pulled rickshaw is the only form of transport which can navigate flooded streets. Its non-reliance on fossil fuels makes it less expensive and non-polluting, and its compact size allows easy navigation through the narrow lanes of Kolkata.
Hand-pulled Rickshaws are the legacies of Kolkata’s British colonial past. The demolition of these mannual carts and their replacement with electric mode of carrier carts, would slightly dim the spirit the of the old city. But with time’s stand, it is on the behalf of saving the human labour in a more cost-effective and eco-friendlier way. Although, Kolkata will always cherish its beautiful past garnered with these wooden carts, that served the city and its citizens for ages.