Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Saturday, 5 March 2011

Life as a 'human horse' in India's city of joy

By Judy Swallow

The sight of a wiry, sweating man, straining as he pulls a rickshaw by hand is a frequent sight in Calcutta despite India's attempts to consign the practice to history.

A man pulling a rickshaw by hand in Calcutta
The state government has tried to ban this centuries-old form of transport

The gentle tinkling of its traditional bell sounds delightful amidst the cacophony of Calcutta traffic - with its ever increasing numbers of cars, taxis, lorries and motorbikes, all seeming to compete to blare their horns loudest and longest.

But turn around and the sight that greets you is far from delightful. A skinny, often elderly, usually barefoot man dragging a hand-pulled rickshaw - a shafted cart with a high seat atop two giant wooden wheels.

It is the same India portrayed in the film City of Joy, made in the slums of Calcutta in 1991, but it is not an image the new India wants the world to see.

The central character of the film was a rickshaw-puller, one of the city's fleet of tens of thousands of "human horses", as they are called.

They have been banned worldwide, including in the rest of India. And yet, 20 years on, there are still as many as 20,000 of them - 6,000 licensed, the rest illegal but officially ignored in exchange for the odd bribe - still pounding the treacherous streets of Calcutta.

$2 a day

Laxman Ran is one of them. His story is typical - he is around 50 years old, he thinks, but looks a good decade older.

He came here in 1983 from a town on the border of Bihar, India's poorest state.

Laxman pulling his rickshaw
Laxman admits he is struggling with the work as he gets older

He and his young wife and child could not survive there - he could not even earn 50 pence ($0.80) a day.

So he followed the path of so many from Bihar to Calcutta. Not that he is a lot better off now.

Like all the pullers, Laxman rents his rickshaw from an owner, a rich man you never get to meet.

Rent has just gone up from 30 to 50 rupees a day, [around £0.70 or $1] but Laxman splits that with another puller, so he pays 25, and on most days earns 100 rupees [about £1.40 or $2].

Somehow from that, he told me, he manages to send home about 1,000 rupees a month.

It leaves him little to live on. Breakfast that day was a handful of the local, cheap, filling snack - puffed rice and a cup of chai. Cost - five rupees.

But he is one of the luckier ones. Many sleep on the streets beside their rickshaws, burning rubbish to keep warm. Laxman has a mat and a space on the floor of a shared room and he has a pair of shoes.

It did not look good for a government of the left to be seen to be putting the poor out of work

Despite these "comforts", Laxman admits he is finding the work harder and harder as he gets older.

"When I first came here," he said, "I was young and fit and could run all day. Now I feel sick and weak a lot of the time."

But he cannot stop yet.

In the early days, all the spare rupees were put aside for his first daughter's dowry. Now he is saving for the second.

What a life, and yet, when the West Bengal government tried to ban hand-pulled rickshaws five years ago, Laxman joined the strike against it and the government caved in.

It did not look good for a government of the left - West Bengal has the longest-serving elected communist government in the world - to be seen to be putting the poor out of work.

And they did not have an alternative plan.

The rickshaw pullers' union - yes, they do have one, and it is quite powerful - said they would support the ban if the government produced a rehabilitation programme for the rickshaw-pullers. No plan, no ban.

Monsoon season

That might soon change.

West Bengal is due to go to the polls in May and all predictions are the communist government will lose power.

I asked Laxman what he would do if the new government did actually bring in the long-promised ban and put him out of work.

A man pulling a rickshaw through the flooded streets of Calcutta
Sometimes the rain is too deep even for the hand-pulled rickshaws

He rubbed the rough side of the building next to him. "I would have to do this - mortar walls on a building site," he said.

"But why don't you do that now?" I asked him. "Surely working on a building site, plastering, would be easier than pulling a rickshaw?"

"Oh no," he said. "On [a] building site, you must work eight hours, all at once, never stop. Now, when passenger come, I work, but no passenger, then I rest."

In fact, Laxman may not have to worry just yet about losing his job, whoever wins the election, because there is another reason these hand-pulled rickshaws are still here.

After the May polls will come the June monsoon. Nowhere do these torrential annual rains hit harder than in West Bengal.

The water runs so deep on the streets, the yellow Ambassador taxis and the three-wheeled motorised rickshaws do not venture out.

Private cars are moved to higher safer ground. Even the cycle rickshaws struggle.

Only the hand-pulled rickshaws, with their high seats on giant wheels can get through.

Ironically, it is Calcutta's rich who have lobbied hard to keep this apparently shameful legacy of the past.

As for Laxman, during the monsoon, he may have to wade through waist-high water so his well-heeled passengers can keep their smart suits and saris dry, but he can put up his prices tenfold and put away quite a bit more for his daughter's dowry.

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