Monday, April 23, 2012

The Haath-Rickshaw, Hand-Drawn Rickshaw in Kolkata

A hand-drawn rickshaw is parked outside the guest-house where I was staying in Southern Avenue. This is a recent pic, taken April 2012. Incidentally, the West Bengal Government had decided to take these off the Kolkata roads by 2005-2006, as this is an extremely inhuman practice! 

I clicked the above pic because I have always been fascinated by these hand-richshaws of Kolkata. That being said, I completely abhor this 'inhuman' practice, and have never sat in one.

While I used to visit Kolkata in my younger days as a child, the one thing that always managed to make me look out in awe were the hand-drawn rickshaws. Even as I would be sitting in a car, a taxi, or maybe a bus, I would see them everywhere, almost always being pulled by wiry-thin, scrawny, rib-cage jutting out men, young, barely adults and very old. There was never an age limit to the person who would be seen running along the roads, most times bare-foot, running through rush-hour traffic, as the passengers would almost always be in a rush, urging the puller to pull fast, run fast, reach fast......and as I discovered recently, not much has changed even today.

While hand-pulled rickshaws are now a thing of the past in most parts of the world (they do have them in a few places mainly as a fun tourist thing and not as a practice), Kolkata, India, still continues to 'move along' with this practice everyday.

This photograph above (courtesy Google Images) is taken during the native Indian days, when India was still being ruled by outsiders. Here, the passengers are being ferried in the hand-drawn rickshaws. Not much of a change in conditions, the only thing that has changed today is perhaps the dress code, that too of only the passengers, as the haath-rickshaw pullers still continue in a vest and lungi.

On 15th August 2005, the-then West Bengal CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had confirmed to reporters that hand-pulled rickshaws had long been considered 'inhuman' and that the practice did not exist anywhere else. He was quoted as saying 'We have taken a policy decision to take the hand-drawn rickshaws off the roads of Kolkata on humanitarian grounds. Nowhere else does this practice exist and we think it should cease to exist in Kolkata.' Well, it's 2012 now, 'only' 07 years after Mr. Bhattacharjee made this promise...and the practice still very much continues.

*Pic courtesy Google Images

When I spoke to those who live in Kolkata, the response to my query was varied. While some had never given a thought to these poor guys who pull these rickshaws, some did have concerns. Many considered this a regular practice, citing explanations that these men are 'used to this, they do this everyday so its not a bother for them. You are an outsider, you see this sometimes, so you feel bad.' Some said they did find it sad to sit in these 'hand-drawn rickshaws', but soon justified it saying 'if we don't sit in these, how will these poor guys earn their living?' Point!

I understand that these men who pull these rickshaws come from extremely poor backgrounds, something you and I can never even imagine, no matter how much we claim to 'understand' their plight - the reality is we dont! Most of you might continue to argue that this provides them with their daily food (whatever little bites they can manage to earn like this for their families and themselves.) But the point is, isn't there a possibility that these people can be rehabilitated? Why can't the government replace these hand-drawn rickshaws and instead, replace them with regular cycle-rickshaws? Something that now definitely belongs in a museum should be sent there, and these living souls should be treated with a little more dignity. Incidentally, this is what Mr. Buddadeb Bhattacharjee was also quoted as saying in 2005: 'We are thinking of alternative modes of transport so that the transition does not affect either the pullers or its riders. It takes money and time. Yes, we do understand it takes money and time, but...ummm....07 years is a little too much time, isnt it?

*pic courtesy Google Images. A very common site on the Kolkata roads. The only place for these men to rest, take a nap, and take shelter from the burning sun and the torrential downpour is their hand-drawn rickshaws. 

A few places around the world where hand-drawn rickshaws were used:
1. In Madagascar, Africa, they are a common form of transport.
2. Durban, South Africa, is famous for its iconic Zulu rickshaw pullers. Only 25 hand-drawn rickshaws are left to cater to tourists today.
3. Bangladesh still continues the practice while various unions try to improve their conditions and highlights their plights to the world.
4. Hong Kong has stopped all licenses for rickshaws since 1975. As of date, it is reported that only one rickshaw is available for a ride at The Peak, mainly for tourists.
5. Malaysia replaced its hand-drawn rickshaws with cycle rickshaws.

- Debolina Raja Gupta

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