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Last Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006, 13:51 GMT
Farewell to hand-pulled rickshaws
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Calcutta is one of the last cities to ban human rickshaws

The hand-pulled rickshaw of Calcutta, immortalised by Dominic Lapierre's famous novel, City of Joy, will soon be consigned to the history books.

A bill passed by the West Bengal state assembly described the centuries-old mode of transport as "inhumane."

The assembly passed the Calcutta Hackney Carriage (Amendment) Bill (2006) on Monday by a majority vote.

Ruling left front lawmakers voted in favour, but the Congress and the Trinamul Congress parties opposed it.

Barefoot men

"Westerners try to associate beggars and these rickshaws with the Calcutta landscape, but this is not what Calcutta stands for. Our city stands for prosperity and development," West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya told journalists recently.

A rickshaw puller takes his customer through a flooded street after rains in Calcutta
Many rely on the hand-pulled rickshaw during the monsoon

"This inhuman mode of transport should have stopped years ago," said communist city mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya.

"We can't imagine one man sweating and straining to pull another man."

Chinese traders introduced the hand-pulled rickshaw to Calcutta in the early 20th century and sinewy, emaciated barefoot men have been pulling the vehicles ever since.

They are still a common sight in the city, and are especially in demand during the monsoon when flooded streets make it hard for commuters to use taxis or cars.

The rickshaw pullers, whose wiry bodies glisten with sweat as they haul their loads are sometimes known as "human horses".

Rehabilitation package

They earn around 100 rupees ($2.25) a day. Most sleep, eat and live on the city's crowded pavements.

Many are poor people from states neighbouring West Bengal. In most cases they do not own the vehicles, but pay a sizeable potion of their earnings to hire them.

China banned hand-pulled rickshaws after the communists took power in 1949. Calcutta is one of only a few places left in the world where such vehicles are used as everyday transport.

Officials say they will look into replacing the hand-pulled rickshaws with motorized three-wheel versions or bicycle rickshaws, but did not detail how this would be financed.

Rickshaw puller in Calcutta
It's argued that human rickshaw pullers present a negative image

The bill to ban the machines was referred to an assembly select committee in July.

Chief Minister Bhattacharjee is chairman of the select committee which met on Monday and decided to present it again in the state assembly.

Congress lawmaker Somen Mitra, who is the president of the Calcutta Hand Rickshaw Pullers Union, recently met the chief minister to request a draft rehabilitation package for the rickshaw pullers.

The chief minister assured Mr Mitra that the government would consider the cases of licensed rickshaw pullers only.

Mohammad Aslam of the All Bengal Rickshaw Pullers Union, the leading union of rickshaw pullers in the city, said it was not opposed to the ban as long as jobs were not lost.

"We hope the government will make suitable arrangements and thousands of people who are involved with this trade are not left in the lurch," he said.

The 1985 novel, City of Joy, features a French priest in West Bengal who tries to help slum dwellers. It was later made into a Hollywood film.

One of the main characters is a human rickshaw puller made ill by the vigorous nature of his work.




SEE ALSO
Calcutta plans ban on rickshaws
15 Aug 05 |  South Asia
Dhaka's beleaguered rickshaw wallahs
05 Oct 02 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Delhi's risky rickshaws
08 Jun 00 |  South Asia

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