Pulling out of the past

This Independence Day marked the dawn of freedom from indignity for the rickshaw-pullers in Kolkata. Attempts to pack off the hand-pulled rickshaw had failed on earlier occasions but this time the West Bengal Government is determined to see the ban through.

Subhrangshu Gupta looks at ‘human horses’ that ferry people and wonders if it will be a final goodbye to the hand-pulled rickshaw.

The hand-pulled rickshaw is to disappear from the streets of Kolkata, the last big Indian city to still have spindly-legged, rag-clad men straining to earn a few paisas a day carrying passengers.

Remember the still from 36 Chowringhee Lane, it was a heavy monsoon evening, Miss Violet Stoneham (played superbly by Jeniffer Kapoor) safely returns to her 36 Chowringhee Lane residence after completing extra classes. She rides a rickshaw through the flooded streets. Abdul Rahim, wearing a green check lungi and a torn, dirty loose vest, pulled the rickshaw ringing the bells with his right hand. Several colleagues of Stoneham were stranded and trapped inside the school until late at night, waiting for the flood waters to recede and the city to return to normal once the public transport started plying on the streets.

Rickshaw-pullers have chosen this job as a source of livelihood since the good old days.
Rickshaw-pullers have chosen this job as a source of livelihood since the good old days. Their ancestors had settled down in Kolkata after coming from remote villages in Bihar and UP.

Rahim, belonging to Patna, was Stoneham’s rickshaw-puller, hired on a monthly basis, for taking her to school at Wellington Square and back home. Many like him have been doing the job for the last two decades. With the decision of the West Bengal Government to ban the plying of hand-pulled rickshaws in Kolkata, others like Rahim may or may not get an alternative source of livelihood but an Aparna Sen or a Mrinal Sen will certainly find it difficult to get another Rahim for their future movies.

A Patrick Swayze or an Om Puri also will no longer find their place in Ronald Joffe’s City of Joy. Balraj Sahani will also not be seen again pulling the rickshaw in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, though Ronald Joffe and Bimal Roy predicted the fading out of the "human horse" gradually.

Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has vowed to banish the hand-pulled rickshaws from the city within the next three-four months. This inhuman practice of ferrying of men or women in a hand-pulled rickshaw by another man exists nowhere else in the world. As he put it, "We have decided to do away with the hand-pulled rickshaws in the next three to four months`85The sight of a human pulling other humans on his shoulders for a pittance does not enhance Kolkata’s image. So, we have decided`85tana rickshaws must go. After all, it’s doing nothing for Kolkata’s image."

"Certain people in the West look at us that way`85They associate rickshaws, beggars and lepers with our city, but the truth is that Kolkata is vastly different from that flawed notion", says Bhattacharjee.

The poet-turned politician Bhattacharjee has always been nostalgic and romantic about Kolkata’s past "gloom and glory." Now he feels the necessity of changing the city’s profile to attract foreign investment. And he does not want Kolkata to remain a city " full of filth and fever, bandits and beggars, urchins and eunuchs, prostitutes and pavement dwellers `85.. where the Bengali Babus are seen riding the rickshaws pulled by poor, wretched and ill-fed workers".

Rudyard Kipling, if alive, would have thanked Bhattacharjee. The city elite and the intelligentsia too are happy that the "human horse" would no longer be seen in Kolkata.

"Certain people in the West look at us that way`85 They associate rickshaws, beggars and lepers with our city, but the truth is that Kolkata is vastly different from that flawed notion."
— Chief Minister, Buddhadeb

But the 20,000-odd rickshaw-pullers, a majority of whom are from neighbouring Bihar and Jharkhand and some are from Bangladesh, will certainly not welcome the decision. Their prime concern will be whether they will get alternative sources of livelihood and be rehabilitated prior to the disbanding of the hand-pulled rickshaws in the city.

And they have the apprehension that they will remain jobless once they are thrown out of the streets since politicians have the habit of making false promises. In 1976, an attempt was made during Jyoti Basu’s chief ministership for withdrawal of hand-pulled rickshaws and other hackney carriages from Job Charnock’s city. At that time also, an assurance was given to rehabilitate the poor rickshaw-pullers but later the government found it difficult to fulfil the promise. Hence the idea was abandoned.

Prior to that, two more attempts to ban the rickshaws had been made during the governments of Siddhartha Sankar Ray’s and the late P.C.Sen. But the ruling CPM, then in the Opposition, vehemently opposed the decision. The CPM leaders had been backed by Lalu Prasad Yadav and George Fernandes.

Tana rickshaw-pullers will now drive autorickshaws
Tana rickshaw-pullers will now drive autorickshaws

Bhattacharjee says this time there will be no false announcement or false promises because the government is determined to do away with the hand-pulled rickshaws from the city. He has been firm even though the decision is harsh. He argues, "It will be more painful if we allow them to run the dehumanising trade any more."

The government will certainly try its best to provide the rickshaw-pullers with an alternative but the step will in no way be conditional to the decision of abolition. Hand-pulled rickshaws will go out from the city today or tomorrow, rehabilitation or no rehabilitation, the Marxist Chief Minister declared.


Though there are 9000-odd hand-pulled rickshaws in the city which have been registered by the Kolkata municipal corporation and the city police, but in reality, some 20,000 hand-pulled rickshaws (mostly unlicensed and illegal) ply every day in and around the city. These rickshaw-pullers have chosen this job as a source of livelihood since the old good days, when their ancestors settled down in this city after coming from remote villages in Bihar and UP.

Interestingly, neither the Biharis nor the Bengalis invented the rickshaws, though mostly it was the Biharis who opted for this job which flourished in the capital city of British India.

History has it that an American blacksmith, Albert Tollman first invented the rickshaw in 1850. In 1900, the Chinese vendors introduced the odd human-pulled vehicles in Kolkata for carrying of goods from one place to another. Within the next 10 to 15 years, it became a popular mode of public transport. In 1940, the civic body in the city formally recognised hand-pulled rickshaws as public transport for carrying of goods as well as passengers.

In 1976, the government banned and confiscated rickshaws, considering it an inhuman and barbarous practice but later backed out due to political pressure and large-scale resistance. In 1997, the rickshaw-pullers’ associations offered to surrender their vehicles at nominal prices but there were no takers. Rickshaws pulled by "human horses" survived and thrived, providing a livelihood to about 100,000 family members when Bhattacharjee plans to ban them and remove them from the city.

Much before the formal acceptance of the civic authorities of the hand-pulled rickshaw as public transport, these handy vehicles were in use both by the elite as well as the common man.

It is said Lord Clive was very fond of travelling in this slow-moving transport. During the British Raj, several illustrious persons like Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Michael Madhusudan Dutt loved travelling by this mode. Several zamindars used to maintain palanquins and rickshaws exclusively for the use of womenfolk in the families, while the male members travelled on horses. Ramkrishna Paramahansa once travelled in a rickshaw to come to the Star theatre at Hatibagan for seeing the play Nati Binodini.

Zamindar Radhakanto Dev of Sovabazar Rajbari (Sovabazar palace) had been frequently travelling on the rickshaw kept exclusively for the palace people. It is said that in the palace three different types of rickshaws were maintained, two for the men and one for the women. There were three people deployed for pulling them. These rickshaws, built specially with the golden plates and decorated wooden handles, had been carefully maintained.

Rambrij, a sturdy-looking middle-aged, has been pulling a rickshaw which he does not own, in the Dum Dum’s Metro station area, much before the coming of Kolkata’s metro. He was born and brought up in a basti in Dum Dum where his parents, hailing from Hazaribag, had settled down soon after Partition for earning their bread and butter. His mother took to preparing and selling cow-dung cakes, while his father ran the hand-pulled rickshaw owned by him. Rambrij inherited the source of livelihood from his father. Similarly, there are hundreds others in and around Kolkata who had left their hometowns in Bihar and UP, to come to Kolkata to make a living as rickshaw-pullers.

Paras, another rickshaw-puller earning a lumpsum, even a few years ago by ferrying passengers in his hand-pulled rickshaw. But now he finds it difficult to earn even a paltry amount by competing with cycle-rickshaws and autos, which dominate the traffic.

Paras and other rickshaw-pullers are ready to accept the ban decision provided they get government help in buying battery-run rickshaws or cycle rickshaws for earning their livelihood. Otherwise, they will not allow the rickshaws to be banned and they will fight to the last for protecting themselves against any onslaught. They are convinced they will get the support of political parties and are hopeful even a section of the ruling CPM will join their agitation for a legitimate cause. The Mayor of Kolkata, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya has said: "Rickshaw-pulling for a living is barbaric. It must stop." State Transport Minister Subhas Chakraborty has announced plans to fill in the blank, "Our plan is to train and engage the taana rickshaw-pullers in driving autorickshaws. We hope to help them obtain gas-powered (LPG) autorickshaws," State CPM secretary, Anil Biswas, has pledged the party’s support for the government move, saying Calcutta would be rid of the rickshaw before the end of 2005. "The decision comes a little late in the day, but it will now be fully implemented," stressed Biswas.

The All Bengal Rickshaw Union, meanwhile, has expressed its displeasure with the government’s final phase-out decision and threatened to launch an agitation if it was not consulted on providing an alternative livelihood to the rickshaw-pullers.

Political and trade union leaders, film personnel, professionals, other intellectuals in Kolkata have also welcomed Bhattacharjee’s move even as they insisted that these affected people should be rehabilitated.