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Will Kolkata remain city of joy for its rickshaw pullers?

Wednesday July 06, 2011 01:02:01 PM, Anurag Dey, IANS

Kolkata: Immortalised in books and films and seen by outsiders as a discomfiting symbol of the city's poverty and struggle for life, Kolkata's hand-rickshaw pullers are hopeful 'Didi' will restore their livelihood.

Their hope has been soaring ever since Didi, as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is popularly known among people of her state, has been making efforts to return land allegedly acquired by force from farmers in Singur.

The fate of the hand-rickshaws was sealed by the erstwhile Left Front regime that banned the "Colonial relics" on Aug 15, 2005, after terming them as inhuman and degrading.

The All Bengal Rickshaw Union (ABRU) has decided to meet Mamata Banerjee, pinning their hopes of reviving their livelihood on the chief minister whom they hail as the voice of the poor and the oppressed.

"We will meet Didi with our grievances and ask her to ban this black law. Amid all the despair and darkness she is our only hope. Thousands of mouths get their bread through the rickshaw; I hope she helps us with our livelihood," Mukhtar Ali, convenor, ABRU, told IANS.

"We are plying without licence for which the police often confiscate our rickshaws. We have to pay Rs.80 as fine which is often our daily earning," said Ali.

At present 17,000 pullers plying 6,000-odd rickshaws in the central and southern parts of the metropolis.

The sight of a sweat-soaked bare-footed man struggling against the odds while towing a human load on his rickshaw through the labyrinthine lanes may cause many to regard these rickshaws as inhuman and degrading. But some have highly romanticised the "human horses" and feel they represent Kolkata in its elements.

The Calcutta Hackney-Carriage (Amendment) Bill, 2006, announced the departure of the rickshaws from the city amid shrill calls of disapproval and remonstration.

Though the bill has been legally challenged, the authorities have refused to renew the licences of hand-pulled rickshaws, with the pullers now staring at uncertainty.

The hand-pulled rickshaw has been immortalised as a living symbol of Kolkata in films and books alike. Be it Hasari Pal (Om Puri) in Roland Joffe's "City of Joy" or Sambhu Mahato (Balraj Sahni) in Bimal Roy's "Do Bheega Zameen", the sight of the scrawny, spindly-legged and barefoot rickshaw-puller is still etched in the memories of many.

The word rickshaw comes from the Japanese word 'jinrikisha', which means human-powered vehicle. Though the Japanese are credited with inventing the vehicle, history has it that Chinese merchants in Kolkata launched these rickshaws in the late 19th century, mainly to carry goods. Later, British rulers made them a cheap mode of transport, eventually turning them into a symbol of the city.

Whether morning or night, rain or cold, they work at all times and conditions. During the monsoons the rickshaw-pullers carrying passengers in chest-deep water is a common sight. Of the average daily earning of Rs.100 a day, Rs.30 goes as payment to the actual owner of the rickshaw. This amount gets reduced further in bribing the police.

Well-known classical vocalist Ustad Rashid Khan said he has never preferred riding the rickshaw as he finds it "inhuman".

"I feel the rickshaw should be banned. The sight of a human being pulling another is discomforting, but the government must ensure alternative means of livelihood to the pullers before they are phased out," Khan told IANS.

But 60-year-old Byas Ojha, a retired teacher, disagrees.

"Though I feel pity for them, during the monsoon when the roads get water-logged, they are the only saviours. I always make it a point to ride them whenever I find one. I get to relive old memories, while the poor man gets to make some money," said Ojha.

Social activist Anuradha Talwar, who has lent her voice to many a protest, would also meet Banerjee with her suggestions on the issue.

"We have certain suggestions that we want to give to the new regime. Certain areas should be declared out of bounds for motor transport with only rickshaws allowed to ply. This move will also help in lessening pollution.

"The rickshaw-pullers are a symbol of the city, so a limited number of the rickshaws could be kept as tourist attraction," Talwar told IANS, adding that the rehab measures should put major emphasis on the pullers than the rickshaw owners. She also suggested that the pullers be provided with cycle rickshaws.

Will the city hold on to its heritage of the hand-pulled rickshaws or will they be consigned to history books, only time will tell.

(Anurag Dey can be contacted at









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