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The last rickshaw-pullers of Kolkata

  • Written by  Words by Laura Fornell, pictures by Oscar Espinosa
  • Published in Cultures
Several rickshaws are parked next to the rooms where the pullers sleep on the dera of Ramdeni Sharma, vice president of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union Several rickshaws are parked next to the rooms where the pullers sleep on the dera of Ramdeni Sharma, vice president of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union Oscar Espinosa
10 Mar
2022
The end of human-powered rickshaws has long been predicted in the crowded city of Kolkata, the day may finally be coming when it actually happens 

Dawn breaks at the New Market in Kolkata as men unload plastic boxes full of live chickens from huge trucks. Just as happens every morning, workers from shops and restaurants from all over the city come to stock up. Frantic activity fills the streets next to the red-brick market building. Threading their way between bicycles hung with multiple chickens, piles of empty boxes and a taxi that also joins the party, its boot and rear seats packed full of chickens, come the rickshaws – a kind of cart with two large wooden wheels pulled by a single man. In a matter of minutes they’ve filled every corner, piled high with half-stunned chickens, leaving only part of the handle free to be pulled.

The skinny, scruffy men who pull the rickshaws – many of them working barefoot – are known as wallahs. They’re in charge of supplying most of the shops and restaurants in the area first thing in the morning, taking advantage of the fact that the city is still half asleep and lacking the congestion of vehicles that takes over the market streets during the rest of the day. For each trip, they earn between 60 and 70 rupees (about 60–70p).

It’s impossible to keep up with them and they quickly disappear into the alleys of old Kolkata. We see some do the same operation several times, until the empty trucks move away, leaving behind an unpleasant stench of excrement and feathers crushed on the asphalt, which the cleaning crews will remove later with pressurised water hoses.

Like the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge and the yellow Ambassador taxis, the rickshaw is one of the most recognisable symbols of Kolkata. They’ve appeared in films and poetry; books have been written about them, such as The City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre. Although it was the first city in India to build a metro system, Kolkata is still one of the few in the world to use rickshaws as a means of urban transport. And yet the rickshaw is also a symbol of the colonial past, having been introduced to India by the British Raj during the 19th century.

Today, Kolkata, which like every big city aspires to be seen as a modern metropolis, isn’t comfortable with the sight of these carts being pulled by poor, emaciated men. Nevertheless, they’re difficult to get rid of. Many governments in West Bengal have expressed a desire to remove them from the streets, but they’re almost essential in order to move through the narrow lanes of the old city and transport packages to the bazaars; vegetables or chickens from the markets; and even children to and from school. During the monsoon season, when many streets are flooded and totally impassable for cars, they come into their own.

DSF7568A rickshaw passing between two vehicles in the heavy traffic of Kolkata city. Image: Oscar Espinosa

CROWDED LIVING IN THE DERA

In a small street near Mother Teresa of Calcutta House, several old rickshaws are piled up and covered in dust. Parked in front of an old house that seems to be falling apart and is oozing moisture from all sides, they look like they haven’t been used in months. With half its facade covered with sheet metal, this dera is owned by the same man who owns the rickshaws. It serves as a sleeping place for the pullers in exchange for a monthly rent of 100 rupees. It also serves as garage and repair shop.

Halim Akthar, 52, has been living in this dera for 15 years and working for the same owner. He came to Kolkata from Dahka, a small town in the neighbouring state of Bihar, one of the poorest in India, escaping poverty and searching for a livelihood to support his wife and seven children. Apart from the monthly rent for a space in the simple, dark bedroom that he shares with 22 other pullers, he pays the owner 900 rupees a month for the rent of the rickshaw with which he goes out to tour the city every day. ‘I work seven days a week, so between the accommodation and the rent of the rickshaw, I pay 1,000 rupees a month to the owner, and I try to send 5,000 rupees a month to my family in Bihar so that they can live, although not every month I achieve it,’ he tells us without losing his smile.

Like many other migrant workers during the strict Covid-19 lockdown in India, Halim returned to Bihar when he was unable to work in Kolkata. Overnight, he was left without an income. For six months, from April to September 2020, he survived as best he could in his hometown, where at least they had food from his small garden and he had no rental expenses. ‘As soon as they told me that there was movement again in the streets of Kolkata, I returned to get my job back,’ he says as he shows us the bedroom. ‘Many have not returned yet and it is likely that they will take a long time to do so since work has dropped a lot since the pandemic started. Before, 22 people slept here; now we are only six.’ It’s difficult to imagine how this wooden loft full of mattresses, with a floor area of just 20 square metres and hardly any ventilation, could have housed so many men.

DSF8045A rickshaw puller rests on a makeshift bed in the stairwell of a building in the New Market neighbourhood. Image: Oscar Espinosa

MD Koisar, 53, works for the same owner who rents the rickshaw to Halim, but he lives with his family in a mini-apartment just a few blocks away. ‘I am from Gorakhpur, a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and I came to Kolkata very young to look for work to help my family,’ he tells us as we walk together to his house.

Koisar came to Kolkata almost 30 years ago. For the first few years, he did everything from small jobs to repairs, but then about 20 years ago, he started working as a rickshaw puller. ‘At first, I didn’t know how to keep my balance and it was hard for me to brake and regain momentum,’ he remembers, laughing, ‘but after 20 years of pulling, it’s as if it is part of my body. I handle it without any problem. We move through the narrow streets of the centre much faster than any other vehicle – that’s why many prefer us to make short trips. Well, because of that and also because we are the cheapest transport in the city.’ For passengers, one ride usually costs between 20 and 50 rupees.

We arrive at a grey, dilapidated building. As we climb the stairs to Koisar’s apartment, for which his family pays 300 rupees per month, we come across several of his neighbours, some sleeping on cots in the stairwell, others sitting on plastic stools in the hallways while chatting quietly over a chai tea, others doing laundry on the rooftop or cooking with small portable stoves in the more open spaces. Once inside, it becomes clear why there’s so much life outside the apartments: Koisar and his family (altogether eight adults and three small children) live in a small space of about four square metres without a kitchen or bathroom. During the day, they clear a space by piling the mattresses up in a corner.

Unlike most of his colleagues, whose families still live in their place of origin, Koisar has formed his family in Kolkata and it has been a long time since he visited Uttar Pradesh, where he has almost no family left. He married Anwari Begam, a woman he met in the Muslim quarter, where they now live, and they now have four children. ‘We have three sons and a daughter, and they have already made us grandparents three times,’ he proudly tells us as he picks up his youngest granddaughter, who was born just a couple of weeks ago. ‘I know that my job is not the best in the world and that many are against it because they say we are treated like pack animals, but nobody forces us to do it. It’s hard work and we earn very little but it has allowed me to support my family until now. I honestly don’t know what I could do if rickshaws were banned for good. We are less and less because the pullers that retire are no longer replaced. I only demand that they let me work with the rickshaw until my body says it’s enough. I don’t hurt anyone and it seems hypocritical to me – those who say it’s an inhuman job and want to ban it. Will they give me work or money to support my family? I don’t think so.’

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DSF8096MD Koisar goes to pick up one of his grandchildren in the home he shares with his family. Image: Oscar Espinosa

DSF7951Rickshaws are left over from the colonial period and were introduced by the British Raj. Image: Oscar Espinosa

A ban on rickshaws was announced in 2005 in Kolkata, and since then, the number of wallahs has been gradually reduced by more than two-thirds. Today, about 5,800 rickshaw pullers are active, compared to the 18,000 that were working in 2005. The number of owners, on the other hand, has remained unchanged at 2,400.

One of Koisar’s sons has followed in his footsteps and is also a rickshaw puller. Another rides a cycle-rickshaw – vehicles with the same basic structure as the traditional rickshaw but instead of being pulled by a person on foot, are powered by a person riding a bicycle. ‘The one who drives the cycle-rickshaw earns a little more because the rates are a bit higher, but he also has to pay more than double the rent – 70 rupees a day instead of the 30 that are paid for the rickshaw,’ says Koisar. ‘With a bit of luck, my son who pulls the rickshaw will be able to take advantage of the plan to change to an electric model that they have been talking about for years, although who knows if in the end it will be done and how much it will cost him to rent the new model.’

THE ATYPICAL UNION OF RICKSHAWS

The All Bengal Rickshaw Union has been negotiating with the government ever since the ban was announced in 2005. Its aim is to find solutions for the owners and the rickshaw pullers, who would be left without a livelihood if they were forbidden to continue to travel through the streets of Kolkata.

‘In 2005, the government banned rickshaws, considering them inhumane. Although from the point of view of this union, what is inhumane is to put a man out of work,’ says Mukthar Ali, 53, secretary of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union for 25 years. ‘Fortunately, the new government that came to power in 2011 did not implement the regulations that prohibit the circulation of rickshaws and have allowed them to continue working. Although no new licenses have been granted since then, still today they haven’t disappeared from the city of Kolkata,’ he tells us, as he rummages through papers on the desk in his office. ‘We have been working for years on a project that will change the model, going from rickshaws pulled by men to electric vehicles.’ He shows us the draft of the project, which includes a rehabilitation programme for rickshaw owners and pullers. It’s dated 2015 but has yet to be implemented.

Under the plan, the new vehicles would be the same battery-powered bicycles that have been used in other cities for years. According to Ali, they cost between 80,000 and 90,000 rupees. The union expects the state of West Bengal to cover 95 per cent of the cost so that the owners of the current rickshaws only have to pay between 4,000 and 4,500 rupees for each new model to replace their fleet. Ali says that this is a sticking point.

If the project is implemented, it’s the rickshaw owners who will benefit most; it will enable them to continue with new vehicles and with minimum investment. For most of the current rickshaw pullers, on the other hand, the definitive withdrawal of their vehicles from the streets of Kolkata will mean the end of their working lives, since only the youngest will have access to the new electric rickshaws. ‘According to the rehabilitation plan, the youngest wallahs will be trained so that they can continue working with the new model, while the older ones will enter a pension scheme,’ explains Ali, but he doesn’t provide any concrete details.

Given this, it’s something of a problem that the All Bengal Rickshaw Union – the only union in the sector, founded in 1934 – represents both employers and employees. To become a member, it’s enough to have just one rickshaw, as is true of the union secretary. But in most cases, members own a large fleet of rickshaws. This is true of the union’s vice president, Ramdeni Sharma, 66, who welcomes us in his dera just a couple of blocks from the office of the union.

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DSF7689Several rickshaws wait for customers on a street near the New Market. Image: Oscar Espinosa

‘I have been in the All Bengal Rickshaw Union for over 40 years, since shortly aft er arriving from Hadjpur, my hometown of Bihar, and starting in the rickshaw business. Things have changed a lot since then,’ he tells us with a certain nostalgia. ‘Today, I have 165 rickshaws; ten years ago, I had twice as many. There are fewer and fewer because they stopped renewing licenses, but also because there is less demand.’

‘I know that sooner or later they will disappear,’ adds Manoj, Sharma’s 35-year-old son, who helps his father with the management of the business, ‘but 20 years ago, my father told me that in 20 years, rickshaws would no longer exist and they still circulate around the city think we are looking at the last generation of rickshaw pullers in Kolkata.’

There is a family atmosphere in Ramdeni Sharma’s dera. Everyone calls him ‘father’, despite many of the residents being the same age, perhaps because, like him, they all come from the state of Bihar. The pullers pay Sharma 30 rupees a day to rent the rickshaw, and a rent of 120 rupees a month to sleep in the dera. Next to the central courtyard, in which the rickshaws are parked, eight tin cubicles of about three square metres have been built where the wallahs live, crowded together. At one end, there are a couple of latrines.

Ramjif Yadv, 50, shows us the small, blue-painted room that he shares with his uncle and nephew. ‘I came 25 years ago looking for work and some neighbours told me about this place,’ he tells us. ‘And since then, I have always lived and worked for the same owner, whom we all consider as a father here in Kolkata’. Like the rest of his companions, Yadv also comes from the neighbouring state of Bihar, where his wife and two daughters still live. He visits them a couple of times a year. ‘For a while, my son lived and worked here with me, but luckily, a couple of years ago, he found a job in a factory in Delhi and was able to quit the rickshaw,’ he says proudly.

DSF7943A rickshaw puller sips tea before continuing the service of a regular customer who sells papayas at Kolkata’s New Market. Image: Oscar Espinosa

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Amid the cacophony of engines and horns honking for no apparent reason, a handbell attracts attention as it makes its way past cars and passersby down Ripon Street in the heart of Kolkata. Basir, a hunched and extremely thin man, appears from behind a taxi pulling his rickshaw, loaded with an older couple and their groceries.

Basir and three friends, all from the same town in Bihar near the capital, Patna, decided to rent a space outside the dera. Basir, 50; Abdul Glam, 45; Isad Mohamad, 60; and Odir, 40, now live in a small storage room around a metre wide by two metres deep, for which they pay 1,000 rupees a month. ‘We pay more than if we slept in the dera, but we have more independence and we are more relaxed. To live here we have to be thin and get along well,’ Abdul jokes as his friends laugh.

What little they have left after paying 30 rupees a day for the rent of the rickshaw and the 250 rupees a month for the storage-room dormitory, they send to their families in Bihar. ‘What will happen when rickshaws pulled by people are permanently banned in Kolkata? We don’t know,’ says Mohamad, the oldest of the group, his tone serious. ‘I hope that it will take time to approve the rehabilitation plan that they have been talking about for years, and I hope that Odir and Abdul can benefit from the change of model, because Basir and I are already considered older, even though we have the strength to continue pulling the rickshaw for a few more years.’

Like so many other rickshaw pullers, Mohamad and Basir will probably have to return to their native Bihar when rickshaws are permanently banned. But, as if reluctant to believe that one day the inevitable time will come, they continue to get up every day to tour the city in exchange for a few rupees.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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