Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Thursday, 17 June 2010 13:32 UK

Delhi's rickshaw wallahs eye up the e-rick

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Delhi

Will E-ricks replace rickshaws?

Pulling people round all day on the back of a cycle-rickshaw is tiring work but, as Chris Morris discovered, a new electric version may be the way forward.

Only once have I dared venture out by bicycle through the elegant, leafy centre of New Delhi.

And it was a little alarming at times - a brief encounter with die-hard members of the Delhi Cycling Club.

We set off from the India Gate war memorial.

Buses and taxis, horns blaring, hurtled diagonally across broad New Delhi boulevards. And all of them seemed to be heading straight for us.

Old Delhi is even more crowded and even louder. But it is a far more relaxed cycling experience.

That is because most of its backstreets and alleys are way too small for buses and sometimes even cars.

It is also because you do not cycle yourself. A cycle-rickshaw wallah does the pedalling for you.

'Full-on experience'

There are probably half a million cycle-rickshaws in this city - tricycles with a padded seat across the back where you can sit and watch the world go by.

Silk market in Delhi
Delhi's markets are full of colour

From the Red Fort, you head towards the grand courtyard of the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque.

Then a quick stop at Karim's for the best kebabs in town, where they claim to serve "royal food to the common man".

And on through a succession of Old Delhi's markets - the wedding market, the jewellery market and the cloth market.

You cycle past small shops with grand names. House of Embroidery, Cosmopolitan Trading Company, Super Fashion Private Limited. All of them selling, as far as I can make out, exactly the same selection of saris.

There are boxes and packages being carried or pulled or pushed in every direction.

A man wanders past balancing about 50 coloured folders on his head. Then another one. And another.

And finally to the Spice Market, where sacks of chillies and cloves, turmeric and lentils, and dried fruits and nuts of every kind clog every corner.

The dust of thousands of chillies drifts through the air stinging the eyes, provoking coughs and sneezes at every turn.

It is an experience best described as "full-on". It is India at its vibrant best. But it is not fun for everyone.

'Too tiring'

My latest venture into the Old City was with Mohammed Ilyas, a cycle wallah here for 35 years. He has a big grey beard and a dirty blue New York Yankees cap.

Mohammed Ilyas, cycle-rickshaw wallah
I should have stayed in my village in Bihar... It's any day better than this
Mohammed Ilyas, cycle-rickshaw wallah

"I'll keep going," he says, "as long as I'm strong enough."

For about £4 ($6) a day, he plies his trade for eight hours on a rickshaw painted faded orange and green.

"I can't do any more," he admits, "it's too tiring."

The only days he does not work are when it rains because in Delhi when it rains, it pours.

And Sundays. The markets are closed on Sundays and the streets are quiet.

"It's my favourite day of the week," Ilyas says. "I stay at home, have a shower and relax."

We stop for a quick glass of lemonade. It's fearsomely hot, and he has earned it far more than me. He wipes his brow and looks up.

"I should have stayed in my village in Bihar," he reflects.

Bihar is the poorest state in the country.

"At least we could grow our own vegetables there. It's any day better than this."

Not romantic?

So is there any hope of improvement for Delhi's cycle wallahs?

Cycle-rickshaws on a busy Delhi street
There are around 500,000 cycle-rickshaws in Delhi

Well, there is always the e-rick.

It is not quite a golf cart and it is not quite a rickshaw either.

A frame made of steel and tough, moulded plastic sits on top of a quiet, battery-powered electric motor.

Apart from the battery, it is all recyclable.

And there are no pedals. It is easy on tired legs.

The e-rick is about to make its debut on the streets of Delhi and, when I went for a trial spin around the campus of Delhi University - where cycle-rickshaws ferry students to and fro - it certainly turned a few heads.

One cycle wallah called Manoj wandered over to ask how and where he can buy one. Answer - he can't, but he could rent one from the company that makes them.

"Why are you interested?" I ask.

He mimes a pedalling motion with his legs, which - as he is standing up at the time - almost makes him fall over.

"It's too hard pedalling all day," he says. "With one of these, I could go further and hopefully make more money."

It is being sold as an eco-vehicle but it is probably not one for the romantics. How, they will cry, can you visit a 300-year-old market in a 21st Century plastic vehicle?

But I reckon it could catch on.

And spare a thought for the world-weary cycle wallahs.

The e-rick could allow Mohammed Ilyas to ferry people around the city for a few more years than he thinks.

He might even make enough money to retire back to his distant village in Bihar. But that is probably a dream too far.

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Delhi's fearless cycle enthusiasts
15 Jan 08 |  South Asia

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