Neglected communities do not make it to history books. That is perhaps why the origin of Kolkata’s hand-pulled rickshaws is difficult to trace. Peering into the mists of time, you can discern palanquins (palki in Hindi, palanki in Odiya) carrying memsahibs too dainty to climb up Shimla’s steep inclines. These enclosed chairs were carried on sturdy shoulders of migrants from the upper Himalayas, as hill stations had only bridle paths for horses, where no wheeled carriage could roll.
It could be that even the hard-hearted British colonialists were moved by the sight of humans lifting humans before they undertook their final journey in coffins. From those hilly terrains, the concept was transported to Kolkata, where English ladies in the original Raj capital were in danger of fainting if they didn’t ‘take’ the evening air. Hand-pulled rickshaws must have seemed like progress, and soon a handcart being pulled by a hapless human became popular among the zamindars and the upper class, used to letting others do the dirty jobs that kept them comfortable.
The tana-rickshaw (handpulled rickshaw) has an image problem: while it might seem a vital part of our heritage, it is clearly also a symbol of dehumanising feudalism, evoking discomfiture in the soul of a city moving towards modernisation. As a choice of livelihood, the rickshaw had particularly flourished in Kolkata when the city witnessed throngs of Bangladeshi immigrants post the 1971 war. In those days, they dominated the thoroughfares. With alternative modes of wheeled transport gaining prominence, several major streets were declared no-go areas for rickshaws.
The erstwhile communist government headed by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had announced plans to completely ban hand-pulled rickshaws to rid the city of the anachronistic symbol of human degradation. This was ensured by tabling the Calcutta Hackney Carriage (Amendment) Bill in the state legislative assembly in 2006. The proposal met with vehement opposition from rickshaw-puller trade unions, who were not convinced by promises of rehabilitation packages. The government, in fact, failed to come up with substantial alternatives for the impoverished lot to earn their living. The Bill was consequently challenged and the Calcutta High Court ordered a stay on the legislation.
Though licensing of hand-pulled rickshaws was stopped since 2005, the rickshaw-walas continue to function, supported by powerful unions. Official records estimate around 6,000 people working in this profession, which contradicts the much higher figures of 24,000 by All Bengal Rickshaw Union, including the unlicensed ones. Further, these statistics do not take into account more than a lakh of dependents expecting subsistence from the sweat of the family’s bread earner.
Once you understand all this, try not to be shocked by the sight of emaciated barefoot figures in threadbare lungis plying along the labyrinthine alleys of Kolkata, the last sanctuary of human powered tana-rickshaw. The self-effacement of these people would have been complete had it not been for the jingling bells with which they make their clarion call.
The pullers are mostly migrants from neighbouring districts and states like Bihar and Jharkhand in search of a livelihood. Their abode is a dera, a combination of garage, repair centre and dormitory. Others who cannot afford such luxury sleep on the streets. The owners of these deras supply the rickshaw-walas with the rickshaws on a daily commission basis, apart from charges for room rent. Very few of the rickshaw-pullers actually own their means of production. It takes an enormous amount of labour for the longest part of each day to earn around Rs 150-Rs 250, a good portion of which must be handed over to the owner.