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Last Updated: Monday, 22 September, 2003, 08:30 GMT 09:30 UK
Calcutta's rickshaw pullers fear future
By Rifat Jawaid
BBC Urdu Service

Hand-pulled rickshaws have been a feature of Calcutta's streets for more than a century, but they could soon be a thing of the past.

Rickshaw puller in Calcutta
Rickshaw pulling: Back-breaking work
In a city which loves its traditions the authorities and human rights groups want the rickshaws phased out.

They say having people, rather than petrol or pedals, power this form of transport is inhumane.

But the rickshaw pullers disagree - many have been doing their job for years and face an uncertain future if their work is stopped.

Hand-pulled rickshaws are known locally in West Bengal as tana rickshaws - or if you're a non-Bengali, haath rickshaws.

Until a few years ago, there were about 6,000 licensed owners of tana rickshaws in Calcutta.

This number has now shrunk to 1,800 after the local administration stopped issuing new licences.

The rickshaws were first introduced in Calcutta in the late 19th century by Chinese traders, primarily to carry goods.

But India's British rulers made them the cheap mode of transport in 1919.

Health toll

Most of the rickshaw pullers today are daily-wage labourers from the neighbouring states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, who make ends meet by pulling their masters' rickshaws.

It's relatively cheap and very handy for short-distance travel, where neither auto-rickshaw or taxi drivers would agree to drop you
Rana Akram
Calcutta resident
Zafirul is a 40-year-old father of four from Bihar.

Emaciated and frail, he's been pulling rickshaws for nearly 15 years.

He says his job has had drastic consequences for his health.

"I was recently diagnosed with tuberculosis and have been in bed for six months," Zafirul told the BBC.

"I will pull rickshaws for a few months before returning to my native land in winter. We work in the farms during winter and store crops for the rest of the season."

Another rickshaw puller, Narain Rai, says hauling a load sometimes four times his weight has taken its toll.

"During summer the mercury goes past 45C. You hate being anywhere near the sun. But despite the sweltering heat, we carry out our duties, providing comfort to fellow human beings," he says.

Police 'harassment'

And human indignity is not all these rickshaw pullers apparently have to contend with.

Many accuse the local police of harassment.

Abdul Sattar, another veteran rickshaw puller, says: "Come Friday and local police begin to raid the areas where we pull our rickshaws. Often we are locked inside the police stations and fined.

Rickshaw pullers in Calcutta
The rickshaw pullers don't want to stop working
"If you don't pay the fine, you end up staying longer in the police station. We consider ourselves extremely lucky if we avoid a beating."

The police deny the allegations.

Sandhi Mukherjee, assistant commissioner of Calcutta's traffic police, says the raids target only those rickshaw pullers "whose licenses have either expired or who never got legitimate permission to ply Calcutta streets".

Many residents of Calcutta prefer the hand-pulled rickshaws to other forms of transport, saying they're particularly good for short journeys.

Rana Akram often uses hand-pulled rickshaws to go to the local market or to drop her daughter at school.

"It's relatively cheap and very handy for short-distance travel, where neither auto-rickshaw or taxi drivers would agree to drop you."

But she agrees that enjoying the luxury of a rickshaw ride at the expense of another human being's health is something "we should stop doing".

Like Rana Akram, many of Calcutta's residents and human rights groups believe hand-pulled rickshaws should be withdrawn as soon as possible.

But the question is: where will these needy members of society go once they have been deprived of something they have been doing so efficiently for years?

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08 Jun 00  |  South Asia

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