The Rickshaw Puller

Rickshaw pulling is a flourishing industry in Delhi. If you’re poor and illiterate, if live in a small village, have a family to support and don’t have any special skills to find a job, one of the easiest ways to earn a livelihood is to migrate to a big city, hire a rickshaw and you can easily earn about 200 to 250 rupees a day.

That is, indeed, the story of most rickshaw pullers – they migrated to Delhi in search of employment, and found it a very good bargain to rent a rickshaw from a contractor for 40 rupees a day. Such a livelihood is a huge blessing for someone who has, until now, been struggling to earn bread for his family from a tiny piece of inherited land in the village, where even after toiling all year nothing was achieved because crops were withered by the drought.

Besides, who doesn’t require rickshaw transport? You are walking on the road, the sun nearly toasting your skin, and your destination is a kilometer away. There are no buses or autos for the small distance you require to travel. A cycle rickshaw passes by. Isn’t it a blessing? Everyone prefers rickshaw transport to travel small distances, where taking a car or bus isn’t feasible.

But does any form of livelihood come without problems? Rickshaw pullers also face many problems. First of all, a rickshaw puller hires his rickshaw from a contractor on a daily basis for about 40 to 50 rupees a day. The price is arbitrarily fixed by the contractor, which gives him the happy privilege to exploit uneducated rickshaw pullers all he wants. If the contractor decides to ask for 70 rupees, the rickshaw puller has no choice but to pay because he needs the rickshaw for his day’s bread. Second, the rickshaw puller on an average earns about 250 rupees a day, of which 50 goes to the contractor, and he has to feed a family of five or six with 200 rupees; besides allocating money for the education of his children and health and medical facilities which may be required from time to time. Because of these expenses, a rickshaw puller is never able to accumulate enough money to buy his own rickshaw (which costs around 9000 rupees), so his exploitation usually continues for the rest of his life.

Let us turn our attention to a different aspect of this business.

Imagine this scenario – all of a sudden, it is announced that only 99,000 cars can be seen on the roads of Delhi. You need to own a license not only for driving your car, but you need to have a second license for owning your car. Also, you cannot drive a car that you don’t own, and you can own only one owner’s license and one driver’s license to drive the car you own. Moreover, your family can own only one car. What this means is that your family can own one car, and only you can drive it, and if you allow your father, brother or mother to drive your car, it is against the law and you become an offender and your car is liable to be confiscated. If any of the above rules is violated, the police has the right to arbitrarily seize your car and destroy it. Yes, destroy it – dismantle it and reduce each part to dust.

Too absurd to be true? All of the above were laws in place in Delhi until about a year ago. Not for cars, though, but for rickshaws. The official rationale behind it? There is too much congestion on Delhi roads; and since rikshaws aren’t very dignifying for Delhi, there should be a cap on the number of rikshaws seen on the roads. Long term goal – eliminate rikshaws from Delhi roads completely. The Delhi MCD chose to conveniently ignore the fact that Delhi has more cars than any other city in India, and the traffic is mainly caused by these cars. The pollution that so many government authorities and private agencies are struggling to control is coming from these cars, not from rikshaws. A family can own 10 cars and have all 10 cars on the road on any given day, with drivers and all, but a rickshaw puller cannot ply a rickshaw he doesn’t own and can own a total of one rickshaw. Besides, if rickshaw pulling is an undignifying form of livelihood, why is the MGNREGA still operational? The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act promises 100 days of employment in the unskilled manual labor sector, not intellectual jobs in the IT sector.

Here are the facts.

December 1998 – The Delhi MCD sets a cap on the number of rickshaws allowed to ply on Delhi roads – 99,000.

Article 3(1) of the Cycle Rickshaw Bye-laws of 1960, framed under Section 481 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act of 1957 – “No person shall keep or ply or hire a cycle-rickshaw in Delhi unless he himself is the owner thereof and holds a license granted in that behalf by the Commissioner on payment of the fee that may from time to time, be fixed under sub section (2) of Section 430. No person will be granted more than one such license.” There are exceptions to this rule – a widow or handicapped person can hold up to 5 licenses.

A contractor who owned a fleet of rickshaws obtained licenses for all his rickshaws by paying bribes to the MCD officials. (Under the law, he could own only one license). What he then obtained were owner’s licenses. The rickshaw pullers who hired rickshaws from him had only plying licenses. Since the law required them to have the owner’s license as well (Only a person who owns a rickshaw can ply it), he is an offender.

These policies of the Delhi MCD were set aside by the Delhi High Court only a year ago. But it is very surprising that such absurd regulations managed to survive in a democracy like India for so many decades!

The rickshaw puller is now free to own a rickshaw, to hire a rickshaw, to let our rikshaws on hire, or allow his brother or anyone else to ply his rickshaw. But the sad state of his poverty remains unchanged.

I have spoken to several rickshaw pullers and have learnt they barely manage to make both ends meet. Many rickshaw pullers are migrants from villages. Their families live in the village. They come to the city to pull rikshaws, so that they can send the money home to their wives or elderly parents. Many of them cannot afford accommodation and sleep under bridges, open fields or roadsides. Those who have accommodation live in rented houses and spend a considerable part of their income paying the rent. It becomes more feasible then, to have their family living in the same house in the city. They mostly send their children to government schools where they don’t have to pay fees. Surprisingly, from my experience I have also learnt that many of them send their children to private tuitions, on which they spend around 500 rupees per month. They don’t seem fully satisfied with the education their children receive at school and think of tuitions as very necessary, especially if they are illiterate themselves. The last thing they want is for their children to grow up to be rickshaw pullers like themselves. They want their children to be well-educated and get good jobs to support the family.

Rickshaw pulling is only one of many difficult livelihoods in India, providing meagre incomes.

There is tremendous amount of hope if the rickshaw pullers’ children are proper receiving education. The next generation will have a lesser number of rickshaw pullers and more people in intellectual jobs, and this cycle will continue. We can hope to see a day when people don’t have to depend on a strenuous livelihood like rickshaw pulling.

Harshini Shanker

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