Many years ago, a Soviet diplomat visiting Kolkata was appalled to see the hand-pulled rickshaw. “Man pulling man”, he just could not believe that in such modern times, this anachronistic mode of transport was in use.

A rickshaw-puller transports a girl through a flooded street in Kolkata

Once, Kolkata was the heart of renaissance, the centre of modernism and the heartland of female emancipation. Kolkata may still be all of this, but the city has not been able to bid goodbye to its woe between wheels.  The rickshaw, of course, can be an awfully painful experience for its puller, hauling as he does sometimes as many as three people perched on the seat above.

In the city’s heat and humidity, dirt and dust, merciless downpours and waterlogged streets, the rickshaw-puller plays the beast of burden dragging the vehicle — and the men and goods on it.

Introduced in 1914 in what was then Calcutta (now Kolkata), the Second City of the Empire (after London), by extremely prosperous Chinese merchants (some of whom had  made their fortunes through opium trade), the rickshaw was primarily used to transport goods.

Even in 1914, rickshaws were not new to India. They first appeared in the 1880s in the northern Indian hill resort of Shimla — after having been invented as “jin riki shaw” by Japan in the 1860s — a form of conveyance which soon became popular across Asia, particularly in China and Singapore.

Popular though the rickshaw was, nobody could deny that it involved a livelihood which was utterly degrading to a human being. And not surprisingly it disappeared from most parts of Asia, not Calcutta though. And shockingly so, because while the city  has been almost obsessive about demolishing  its British past, changing its own name from Calcutta to Kolkata, and that of many streets — to make them all sound Indian — an inhuman legacy of the Raj was allowed to live on!

Often depicted as an symbol of wretchedness in movies like the 1953 Do Bigha Zameen (A Plot of Land, where the poor protagonist-puller  is forced to run at break-neck speed) and Roland Joffe’s 1992 City of Joy (where the travails of the puller bring tears to one’s eyes), but romanticized in the 1960 Love in Simla (where the hero pulls his sweetheart  sitting on a rickshaw, lisping a romantic number), the rickshaw  on the road has attracted diametrically different opinions.

While the vehicle has been of enormous use as a means of inexpensive transport for short distances and also during Kolkata’s punishing monsoon months when streets get flooded, the city’s rational thinkers have been urging that the hand-pulled rickshaw be banned.

Admittedly, the West Bengal government (whose capital city is Kolkata) has been trying to get rid of the rickshaw. In 2005, the administration declared that man pulling man was a travesty of human dignity, and banned the rickshaw the following year. But the government made one mistake. It did not think about the plight of the 25,000-odd pullers. Some of them had been in the profession for over 50 years, and almost 60% were ill with tuberculosis and other lung diseases. How would they survive?

(Today there are roughly 2,500 to 3,000 pullers and close to 6,000 rickshaws. Many of them are idle for want of pullers)

So, understandably, the Calcutta High Court stayed the ban. However, the administration  stopped issuing fresh licenses in 2005.  But it is still to find a humane life for the pullers.

Although the government has been replacing the hand-pulled rickshaw with a battery-operated motorized version, not all pullers are happy with a transformation they feel will not be quite practical.

For example, a septuagenarian puller, Badshah Ali — who came from the eastern Indian state of Bihar and who has been pulling a rickshaw for half a century — feels that he cannot possibly get trained at “my age of 70 to operate a motorized vehicle”.

The West Bengal administration has an unenviable task all right. But the question one would like to ask is, why did it have to wait all these decades to try doing away with the rickshaw? Had the move to put battery-operated vehicles on the road been thought of a couple of decades ago, Ali would have been 50, younger and more inclined to stop pulling and start stepping on the accelerator.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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