So when does the service of tana-rickshaw come in handy? The unplanned city that Kolkata largely is, rickshaws enable you to manoeuvre through the narrow lanes and by-lanes where larger vehicles cannot venture. They now prominently cater to the lower-middle and middle class commuting short distances. The local jest is that at the height of monsoon — when other modes of conveyance stand in waist-high water — even the governor resorts to a tana-rickshaw. You could come across a rickshaw-wala carrying practically anything, from merchandise to school children. Some form long associations with families, functioning akin to domestic retainers, available at every beck and call.
Meet Mohammad Khalil, whose long working day begins with the break of dawn, with an occasional afternoon siesta, and winds up late with tired puffs of biri (cheap tobacco roll) in the dera of Anwar Hussain at Beniapukur. Hailing from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, the 53-yearold rickshaw-wala has spent more than 35 years trudging through the streets of Kolkata. While his sons work in the garment industry near Jama Masjid in Delhi, Khalil takes pride in his profession. “Even when I am unwell, I take the rickshaw out because it makes me feel good,” he says. That he is putting on a brave face is an understatement. Isolated from their families, the likes of Khalil regularly resort to gambling, sex workers, alcohol and other forms of addiction to unwind after a hard day of labour.
Anwar Hussain, on the other hand, presides over a band of rickshaw pullers, whose numbers have experienced a steady decline over the past few years. Once the hub of more than 150 rickshawwalas, his dera houses less than 50 now. “The rickshaw-walas are an ageing population. None of the younger generation come to work here anymore. Why will they, with such a negligible income in the face of constant abuse and police harassment?” complains Hussain.
As he speaks to Tehelka, Hussain receives a call informing him that one of his rickshaws and its puller has been detained by the police for having trespassed on a prohibited road. “The pullers sometimes tread into forbidden streets for a few extra bucks. Eventually, I am forced to pay a fine to the police for their release,” narrates a disgruntled Hussain. It is not difficult to understand that the fine will be deducted gradually from the already meagre earnings of the rickshaw-wala.
Much hope has been vested in the TMC government currently at the helm of power, which has come up with the idea of replacing the rickshaws with battery-powered substitutes. For the city’s expanding fringes such as New Town, batteries will be the new horse power. Mukhtar Ali, vice-president of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union, sounds optimistic about the latest developments, since pullers will have the chance to earn up to Rs 300-Rs 400 per day. “The task of pulling rickshaws is extremely laborious. Those from the lowest strata of society who have no other skill to depend upon take up this line of work,” he explains.
“The numbers of rickshaw pullers are steadily dwindling but the city still needs them. Perhaps with such an initiative the younger generation will start returning to the profession once again,” Ali adds. Simultaneously, he emphasises on the necessity of training the pullers to orient themselves to changing times.
Then there’s still licence raj to cope with. Securing the new battery-operated rickshaws will not be easy for the large number of unlicensed rickshaw pullers. However, Mukhtar Ali assures that the rehabilitation programme will take account of both licensed as well as unlicensed rickshaw pullers. Altogether, it remains a debatable proposition whether the elderly men who have been at the job for decades can — or would be willing to — acclimatise to newer alternatives.
Rhetorical flourishes can be used to denounce the practice of making a human pull another human’s weight is the vestige of a bygone era of colonial slavery. Yet the fact remains that for generations of migrants to Bengal in independent India, pulling rickshaws is the only economic reality. With the tool becoming redundant, perhaps the trade itself will wither away, the people lost and forgotten.
Except that they will still be out on the streets, trying to make a living.