For a short minute this summer, it looked like the end had finally come for rickshaws in Kolkata. But the latest news suggests that the 19th century relic has found a new lease of life.
In the streets of the capital of West Bengal, more than 20,000 men, mostly poverty-stricken migrants from Bihar, pull human beings on a two-wheeled carriage, walking on their feet. Among themselves, they share the income from 6,000 licensed rickshaws — of course after paying the owners their ounce of flesh. This is the only part of the world where humans still pull rickshaws with their feet on the ground. Rickshaws originally came from China, but after the 1949 revolution, that degrading form of labor was done away with.
I have heard many times of plans to do away with Kolkata’s rickshaws, but each time, nothing comes of the effort.
On August 15 this year, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, chief minister of West Bengal state, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) declared the state’s intention of banning rickshaws in Kolkata. He said, “the sight of a human being pulling another for a pittance does not enhance Calcutta’s image.” Within three or four months, the streets of Kolkata were to be free of rickshaws. The CPI(M) has been in power for more than 25 years and this is not the first such declaration from the party.
Not surprisingly, the rickshaw pullers disagree with the government. They do not trust the promise of the authorities to find alternative employment. They are right to do so when "image" seems to be the driving factor behind the state’s declaration.
But of course there is more behind the scenes. While poor men may be pulling the rickshaws, there are people with a bit more clout who own the rickshaws. The Telegraph of Calcutta reported on November 8 that a municipal license officer claimed that "70 per cent of the hand-pulled rickshaws are owned by constables and havildars of Calcutta Police."
Despite the state government’s edict, the city corporation has decided to renew existing licenses (though they will grant no new ones). The Mayor said, “We have decided to renew the licenses of the rickshaws till the government announces an alternative rehabilitation plan for hundreds of rickshaw-pullers of the city.” The Deccan Herald reported on November 10, "While many perceive that the move has been taken with an eye on the Assembly elections next year, the KMC sources said the government coffers presently could not afford any rehabilitation for these people."
The end of rickshaws in Kolkata, if it finally comes (and sooner or later it must), will not however mean the end of all rickshaws. Rickshaws persist across South Asia, but they are the cycle-driven kind also known in some countries as pedicabs. The simple machinery of a bicycle chain amplifies the muscled effort of a man and it makes it easier for him to pull a load. However, the machinery has only made passengers believe they can add to the rickshaw puller’s burden. I have seen skeletal men forced to pull three or four chunky men who eagerly climb on board. How big an improvement is this?
The plight of the rickshaw pullers of Kolkata brought to mind an old short story by Howard Fast titled "The Rickshaw." I read it many years ago in a used copy of the New Masses literary magazine where it was published in 1947. I discovered that the story is available online. The novelist Howard Fast was once a supporter of the Communist Party, though he repudiated those allegiances in 1956 following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary.
The story is set in Calcutta during World War II and is narrated by Eldridge, a visiting American journalist. It opens with this sentence: "It was one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade but I walked back to the Press Club because I had principles, and one of them was that I would not be drawn by a man who serves the function of a beast."
Later in the piece, Eldridge is taken to a meeting of a literary society where he discusses his principles with a group of Indian trade unionists. The sergeant who took him to this meeting says, "You see, Charjee organized the rickshaw drivers. They are a very good union. They are a very militant union. During the past year, they struck three times, and each time they won their gains. They are a very militant union. You see, they haven’t much to lose. I mean the life of a rickshaw driver is only six or eight years after they begin to work, so they haven’t much to lose. Some day they will help to do away with rickshaws, but until then–"
I do not know who controls the Kolkata rickshaw drivers union today, but presumably those unionists of the story would later become supporters of one or another government in power. No doubt they believed, during the freedom struggle, that such a form of labor would not endure in the city but they proved unsuccessful in changing the practice.
There is one more exchange I wanted to note in the story. The narrator says something about the generosity of Americans, something most of them have been conditioned into. There is an English soldier in the meeting, and he responds to Eldridge’s remark. "Hurley smiled again, but there was a sadness in him, a lonely sadness that took the sting from his words. ‘But they become unconditioned so fast, so very fast. How many thousands of your Americans have I seen here in the East, and almost never did I hear one say Indian or Burmese, or Chinese, but for all people whose skin is one shade darker than theirs, they have one word, waug. They are complicated in their principles, just as my Indian friends are.’"
Read the full story at Trussel’s EclectiCity that has collected many of Fast’s writings.
A rickshaw puller is the main character in Dominique Lapierre’s City of Joy. Om Puri played the man in the movie version. But for me, the classic fictional treatment of rickshaw men is the Chinese writer Lao She’s Rickshaw (the novel Lo-t’Hsiang Tze). Published in 1938, it is considered to be the first important study of a laborer in modern Chinese literature. I read it some years back in the translation by Jean M. James. The novel begins with a poor Chinese laborer who begins with hope but life – both tragedies that happen to him as well as the result of bad choices he makes – drags him down more and more to an animal-like existence.
It is the dawn of the 21st century, surely it has come time to do what is necessary to end this form of human labor, without sacrificing those who toil this way into a worse fate of unemployment.