Sunday, October 18, 2009

Hey, rickshaw

Hand pulled rickshaw in Calcutta

Have you ever taken a ride in a hand pulled version of the rickshaw? Or even seen one? Well, may be in Kolkotta. That is the last bastion of the original two wheeled rickshaw. The Government tried to ban this mode of transport which turns men into beasts of burden, but the rickshaw pullers would not agree.

In this type of rickshaw, the puller stands between the protruding handles of the vehicle, lifts them and once the passenger is seated, and starts running towards the destination, near or far. He watches the traffic ahead and adjusts the speed accordingly. Some rickshaws would have a bicycle bell at the end of one of the handles to warn the pedestrians.

It is not clear who invented the rickshaw or when. Anyway, it was gaining popularity in Japan by the late 1860s. Chinese traders introduced the new vehicles to Calcutta from where it spread to other parts of the country.

In my younger days one had to depend on hand pulled rickshaws in Cochin for moving around the town. (See: Some memories of WW II, Cochin and the 1940s.) We used to land at Cochin by motor boat. There would be a number of rickshaws parked at the boat jetty and places like the railway station. You bargain about the fare and once that is settled, board the vehicle.

The hood made of canvass is usually pushed back unless it was sunny or raining. The rickshaw puller too preferred folded hood to avoid wind resistance. One felt like a lord, sitting at a level that was above the pedestrians and moving faster than them, and the gentle breeze on the face.

The rickshaw, those days, was a well-to-do man’s conveyance. There were only a handful of automobiles. Judges, government officers, and important people used the rickshaw. Some owned a rickshaw and employed a puller, like car and driver today.

Bicycle rickshaw

I don’t remember when the changeover to bicycle rickshaw (pedi-cab) happened in Cochin. I believe that in Delhi the technologically superior bicycle rickshaw was introduced in the 1940s. These eco-friendly vehicles became popular quite fast. It was also a boon to the bicycle tire industry because the rickshaws required strong, load bearing pneumatic tires. That was the origin of ‘rickshaw tires’.

According to one estimate, there are over 8 million rickshaw-pullers and perhaps as many bicycle rickshaws in India. At about Rs.3500 for a new bicycle rickshaw, it is quite a huge investment in this sector. But only about 5% of the pullers own vehicles. The rest take the rickshaws on hire from owners who have made it a business.

After paying the rent, repairs, and bribing policemen, the rickshaw puller would be lucky to have Rs.100 left with him at the end of the day. On the average he has five dependents according to one study. 46% of the rickshaw pullers are illiterate, and live below poverty line.

Efforts are on to establish Rickshaw Banks from where the pullers can avail of loans to buy new vehicles. If efficiently implemented, the scheme should definitely improve the lot of this vulnerable group of people.

Auto rickshaw.

Auto rickshaw, or ‘auto’ as it is popularly called, is found in numbers in big cities, small towns and even rural areas. This automated three-wheeler can be said to be the vehicle of the lower-middle class. It costs about half the fare of a taxi, is reasonably fast, and has the maneuverability to negotiate narrow spaces. The driver sits in front. Up to three passengers are allowed in the cabin at the back.

Something new is hopefully around the corner. The Ministry of Science is conducting trials on a new model of rickshaw named ‘Soleckshaw’ with a motor powered by solar charged battery. This is expected to be in regular use by the time of the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

Will that make the life of the rickshaw man any better? Not unless he can own the vehicle.

Photos: Click to enlarge. Top: Wikimedia Commons.

The other two by me. Copyright reserved.


harimohan said...

i had travelled in hand rikshaws in my young days in madras
( chennai then ),later in cycle rikshaws too
thinking back now i feel sad for those rikshawpullers but at that time it was just a transport

YOSEE said...

Interesting "Rickshayanam'.There used to be hand pulled rickshaws in Chennai once.Those are banned now, but we can still see men pulling small carts laden with goods.

islandgal246 said...

Very interesting post. Like in most countries the illiterate is always exploited. I do hope that the rickshaw pullers will be able to own their vehicles soon.

GVore said...

Good to hear your first hand perspective. If interested have a look at my recent photo essay on the Rickshaw Wallahs of Calcutta, Allahabad and Banares. You can see the story at

Dinakar KR said...

You may see my old entry on a small incident.

The one you picture there is showing the puller with footwear. But I have seen many in Calcutta (now Kolkata of course), running barefoot. Barefoot! I don't what they do on hot days. I have got down in sympathy till an upward gradient is crossed to avoid strain on his calves. It is their daily living, but for us who see such labour is hard to digest.

Dinakar KR said...

I return to add that for our bicycles at home, my father and grandfather always bought "Dunlop Rickshaw Tyres" - Dunlop Roadster. They were more rigid, costlier and, thick and durable. That was our preferred choice and no compromises. Last year I saw in Delhi that many tricycle rickshaws had a PVC moulded hoods which I must be a new thing that will slowly replace the canvas one.

There was a scene in a Bruce Lee film showing such a hand-pulled cart. He lifts holding the two bars with the person sitting on the seat and throws him off - a show of Bruce Lee's strength! That scene must have been shot in Japan or somewhere in the east.

Kariyachan said...

I have some memories travelling on a cycle rikshaw , during my childhood when my father was based in Bokaro,Bihar.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Harimohan, you are right. at that it was just a mode of transport.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Yes, YOSEE, men still work as beasts of burden, pulling hand carts.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Yes islandgal1246, the illiterate always get exploited. The rickshaw pullers of India would be able to own their own vehicles only if the Rickshaw Bank scheme is properly implemented.

Abraham Tharakan said...

GVore, shall look up your site.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Dinakar KR, It must be terrible for the barefoot rickshaw pullers on summer days. The trouble people have to go through to make a living!

Abraham Tharakan said...

Dinakar KR, I hope the moulded plastic hoods are scientifically designed.

I don't think I have seen the Bruce Lee movie you mentioned.

Nona said...

Very interesting post! A couple of years ago, Newyorker magazine ran an article on hand pulled rickshaw. Those were prevalent in NY at that time. They chose the same words used by you. It was derogative and demeans man into beasts of burden. As an addendum, they also blamed Bush on it. Don't ask me how they made the connection. But they did make the connection! :)

The bicycle rickshaw is popular in the NCR region! I lived in Gurgaon for over a year and would depend on it when my car was not available. Ironically, one of my friends refused to take this mode of transport for reasons you have cited for hand-pulled rickshaw! One time, his wife took the bicycle rickshaw and he walked beside her refusing to compromise on his principles. :)

Abraham Tharakan said...

Kariyachan, I think that cycle rickshaw caught on in north India more than in the south. In Kerala, perhaps more people use auto rickshaws than cycle rickshaws.

perumalythoma said...

Could never bring myself to engage a cycle rickshaw.
(Have never come across the hand-pulled variety.)
I suppose an early exposure to Do Bigha Zameen had much to do with it.
Also, find it inhuman.
I know that the next question will be that if you deprive the rickshaw puller his job - however inhuman it be - how will he put bread on his table?
To which I have no answer.
But, to make one man run (or cycle) because another chooses not to walk is something I just couldn't digest.

Destiny's child... said...

I have seen those rickshaw pullers in's a very sad sight. Especially when you see scrawny men pulling the rickshaw with a load which could be almost ten times their weight....

Abraham Tharakan said...

perumalythoma, to some questions there are no answers. I particularly like the last sentence of your comment. It is worth quoting.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Deastiny's child, you are right. It is so sad to watch a man pulling a rickshaw.

Nebu said...

My earlier memories of the rickshaw go back to 1964-68 when I was at the St. Theresa’s convent boarding school Ernakulam. The Chaplain used to come early morning in a hand pulled rickshaw. The convent too had one for the use of its senior nuns.

A common site in Ernakulam until a few years back was the cycle rickshaw overloaded with school children. Now even that too has given way to the auto rickshaw.

Surprisingly in the metropolitan city of Delhi it is still the mode of transport around the Delhi University campus. You alight from the swanky Delhi metro to get on to the outdated cycle rickshaw!

Both the hand pulled rickshaw and the cycle rickshaw have vanished from the upwardly mobile Kerala and the auto rickshaw (which is both a convenience and nuisance at the same time) has taken its place.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Nebu, thanks for the comment.
By the 1960s, there were only some private hand pulled rickshaws were left in Cochin.
You are right. In Kerala even the bicycle rickshaws have given way to auto rickshaws.

henry said...

Both the hand pulled rickshaw and the cycle rickshaw have vanished from the upwardly mobile Kerala and the auto rickshaw (which is both a convenience and nuisance at the same time) has taken its place. Like in most countries the illiterate is always exploited.I am happy if other user contribute and share their knowledge.

rickshaw Hire

bmmann said...