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Saturday, 5 October, 2002, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Dhaka's beleaguered rickshaw wallahs
Cycle rickshaws in Dacca
Rickshaw drivers are often persecuted by traffic police
Alastair Lawson

Police in Bangladesh have begun a campaign to remove unlicensed cycle rickshaws from the capital, Dhaka. The authorities say the long-term aim is to halve the city's estimated 400,000 cycle rickshaws.

Travelling to work early the other morning I witnessed a sight that in many ways typifies life for Dhaka's innumerable rickshaw wallahs.

A rider of one of these ungainly looking human-powered three wheelers had just ignored a policeman's orders to stop at a junction.

He was being pursued by the overweight law enforcer, who was angrily waving his baton.

Rickshaws in Dhaka
The rickshaw men face pollution, heat, rain and traffic chaos
Had he been caught, he would no doubt have faced a beating.

But the advance of the law did not seem to faze the rickshaw driver at all.

With a telling smile he merely reached into his shirt pocket, extracted a low denomination note, and threw it over his shoulder onto the road without bothering to stop.

The placated policeman's advance was instantly suspended as he bent down to retrieve the money.

Tough life

Dhaka is known as the rickshaw capital of the world.

But increasingly life for rickshaw wallahs - often persecuted by bullying traffic cops - gets harder and harder.

They ride all day earning less than three dollars in stifling heat and ferocious rain.

Family transporting belongings by tricycle in Bangladesh
Pedal-power is often used to move huge loads in Bangladesh
There are police officers to pay off, suicidal coach drivers to be avoided and some of the world's most crowded and pot-holed roads to be navigated.

The air pollution from the ceaseless flow of traffic is so bad that many visitors to the city feel nauseous.

But thousands of rickshaws can be seen every day, either carrying up to four passengers or transporting huge loads which are often twice their bodyweight.

When I moved house recently, there was no furniture lorry.

Instead, a whole squadron of cycle rickshaws did the job, meandering through the traffic like a vast colony of ants carrying everything from double beds, to a fridge, a television and a sofa.

The operation was commanded by Mahmood who like all the other riders carried not an ounce of fat.

Road rules

Rickshaws in Dhaka are renowned for their artwork.

Recently some have been displaying rather jowly-looking portraits of Leonardo Di Caprio.

He is made to look overweight because many see that as a sign of health and prosperity.

In what remains a distinctly hierarchical society, rickshaw wallahs are regarded as the lowest form of life on the roads.

Truck on street in Dhaka
Trucks, lorries and coaches move over for no-one
There is no enforcement of the highway code in Bangladesh, other than the widely held principle that if you are smaller you should get out of the way.

That means that trucks, lorries and coaches move over for no one.

Cars are in the second tier, two-stroke three-wheelers - or auto rickshaws - are in category three and the cycle rickshaw is at the bottom of the pile.

Their low ranking means that if there is an accident, the riders are inevitably held responsible and frequently beaten up for their troubles.

Dumping ground

But despite these hardships, rickshaw wallahs are well known for their resilience and cheerfulness, even though in future they will not be present in such huge numbers.

Recently the government announced that it wanted to make the major roads of Dhaka off limits to rickshaws - they are accused of slowing down traffic speeds.

A rickshaw wallah asleep in Delhi
Rickshaws are used in many Asian countries
Traffic police are now deployed at every junction to ensure that the law is maintained.

There is also a crackdown on unlicensed machines, which comprise around half of the 400,000 that are available for hire in Dhaka.

Police are combing the city in a concerted stop-and-search campaign. Any rickshaw wallah who doesn't have the correct documentation will find his cycle - and metaphorically his livelihood - thrown into the back of a lorry and taken off to a dumping ground in central Dhaka.

And it is not just unlicensed machines that are being confiscated: so too are the cycles of rickshaw wallahs deemed by the police to be driving dangerously.


In a city where the only rule of the road is not to give an inch to competing vehicles, such an initiative would be laughable were it not so devastating for those cyclists whose machines and incomes are lost.

Rickshaw drivers in general come from the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh.

Dhaka skyline
There are an estimated 400,000 cycle rickshaws in Dhaka
Many arrive in Dhaka from rural areas in search of work.

It is a tough and dehumanising job.

Forced to breathe high levels of lead and carbon monoxide, the rickshaw wallahs are unprotected against the heat and the rain.

It is hardly surprising that the average lifespan of a rickshaw driver is thought to be around 45 years.

A common misconception of Bangladesh is that diarrhoea is the biggest killer.

While it is true that thousands of lives are lost every year because of this, more people die of respiratory illnesses.

Cow transport

Many of these fatalities come from the ranks of Dhaka's hard pressed but always smiling rickshaw wallahs.

But trying to stop a rickshaw wallah from plying his trade in Dhaka is a bit like trying to stop a mosquito from coming into your house.

They will always find a way.

The no-rickshaw rule is supposed to be vigorously enforced along the airport road, the largest and most important carriageway in the city.

But on my way back home from the BBC office the other night, just outside the prime minister's office, I saw a rickshaw wallah straining to pull a trolley - which contained a large cow firmly secured and mooing disconsolately.

See also:

18 Sep 02 | South Asia
31 Jan 02 | South Asia
19 Sep 02 | South Asia
08 Jun 00 | South Asia
26 Feb 02 | South Asia
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
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