It’s inhuman for a human being to carry another in this day and age,” Kolkata’s mayor Bikash Bhattacharya recently told Bloomberg News. Last December, his Communist-dominated state government ordered all 18,000 “human horses”, or rickshaw-pullers, off the city’s streets in a gradual phase out, apparently for their own well-being.
Yet its Communist government is clearly keener on enhancing Kolkata’s image as a transnational technology capital than actually alleviating the difficulties these rickshawalas face. And this isn’t the first time moves have been made for an all-out ban. In 1982, the state seized and destroyed 12,000 rickshaws and in 1984, unsuccessfully attempted an out right ban, which was outmanoeuvred by pullers’ unions.
This time, the ban looks like it will stay. “Westerners try to associate beggars and these rickshaws with the Calcutta landscape, but this is not what Calcutta stands for,” West Bengal’s chief minister told journalists. “Our city stands for prosperity and development.”
Critics of the practice note that Kolkata is the last place on earth where hand-pulled rickshaws still sprint down narrow streets. China banned the practice mid-century, and pullers have basically become non-existent in Indonesia and Thailand. Chinese traders first brought rickshaws to the Raj’s summer capital at Simla, and later, they popped up in the regular colonial capital, Calcutta.
Many have called the practice a modern vestige of the British rule. The government seems keen on shedding such colonial images. “We are looking at Calcutta to be the IT hub for eastern India,” a state official recently told BBC. “With economic growth, you eliminate poverty,” he added.
I don’t doubt economic growth can be harnessed to alleviate poverty. But is the ban about decrying an “inhuman” practice, or boosting the state’s image to encourage outsider investment?
I can think of many “inhuman”, and often outright illegal, sources of employment in Kolkata; top on that list is trafficked sex workers, who surely outnumber rickshaw-pullers in the city. If the government were dedicated to removing the fetters of cruelty and abject poverty (as its party’s creed would have us believe), it could curb such exploitation as well.
We can debate whether or not hand-pulled rickshaws are cruel, but the rickshawalas almost universally oppose the ban. As one puller told the Economist, “I may not like it, you may not like it, but I have children to feed.” Many of the pullers are migrants from poverty-stricken and crime-ridden Bihar, and they sometimes make two or three times what they could in their home state.
The pullers had gone on a city-wide strike in January to protect their livelihood. The government has paid lip service to providing alternative employment or services for the pullers, but nothing concrete has materialized.
Earlier this month, the Central government opposed rickshaw-pullers in court over an order preventing the re-issue of licences, following December’s Bill. A representative of the pullers told the courtroom: “The government had announced it would make alternative arrangements for us before imposing a ban on slow vehicles. Nothing has been done.”
The state can hardly claim to institute a policy in the name of rickshaw-pullers’ dignity when it will effectively put some of Kolkata’s poorest out of work. And to do so with no alternative source of livelihood is telling of its duplicitous policies. If it is so committed to ending this purportedly “inhuman” practice, West Bengal’s government must ensure further dehumanization doesn’t occur. It must prevent the pullers from becoming beggars.
Jonathan Sidhu, a student of Brown University, USA, is a freelance writer. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org