The Spirit of the Caravan

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress , rob and degrade them, neither person nor property will be safe.” These lines by Frederick Douglass (in his famous speech on the 24th anniversary of emancipation in the District of Columbia, Washington D. C in April 1886) describe perfectly the prevailing condition of rickshaw pullers in India.

With poverty being thrust on them by reducing fares and increasing labor hours, lack of concern on the part of the government as well as the common man and continuous repression in terms of social and economic status is surely burning the fire of hatred in their hearts. It is due to this that some of them have become hostile and indifferent to people and sometimes even to their own condition – desperation to make ends meet and in the process often indulgence in malpractices. But why blame them? Are we all not directly or indirectly the cause of their misery? Through this case study, I intend to go into the depths of their situation, seek the truth and try to find a practical solution to end their problems. I will look at their socio-economic condition in detail and try to provide a socio-technical solution to the problem.

In the technology driven world of the most populous metropolitan city of India, where urbanization is at its prime, the sight of a primitive caravan being pulled by a weary, tired man is certainly surprising and yet not uncommon. Cycle rickshaws were introduced in Delhi way back in 1940. Their number has increased phenomenally in the last couple of decades.

In the absence of any alternative mode of transport for short distances, the rickshaws emerged as a vital public service. But, they still have to bear the brunt of low wages and sub-human conditions of living. They migrate to urban areas in search of better livelihood only to face urban misery in replacement of rural poverty.

On an average, the earning of a rickshaw puller supports five or six others. Thus, at least 50-60 lakh peoples’ livelihood is dependent on the labor of Delhi’s rickshaw pullers.

Cycle rickshaws use renewable energy, reduce air pollution by saving fuel on 10 crore motorized trips all over the country, meet urban mobility requirement in middle income dominated colonies and most of all, have been major employment generators. And yet they are largely seen as a major traffic hazard. Licensing of rickshaws is yet another uphill task, with only one in fourteen rickshaws being licensed.

The majority of rickshaws are owned by minor entrepreneurs who own fleets, the sizes of which range from around five to a couple of hundred rickshaws. The owners are usually forced to enter into an unofficial agreement with the MCD employees who issue them licenses in the bulk in the name of real or imaginary rickshaw pullers, provided they are adequately bribed. The bribe rate varies from Rs.300 to Rs.600 per license.

From verbal and physical abuse by commuters to unwarranted harassment by the policemen who arbitrarily swoop down on busy areas and start seizing both licensed and unlicensed rickshaws, the ordeal has become a habit and they have reconciled themselves to this fact.

Some were defeated by fate; some were in search of a better livelihood while others followed their own free will. Whatever be the reason for the rickshaw pullers to end up with their present jobs, what they unanimously agree upon is the need for a change- a need to free them from the shackles of drudgery and misery, a need to bring the “sidelined” into the mainstream, a need to start creating contented citizens of a nation rather than the larger than life “city”zens, a need to start being a “Doer” than just an observer.

Tania Jain

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