Kolkata's 'human horses' lose jobs as communists ban rickshaws
Mumbai: Mohammed Jowahar, like his father before him, has pulled rickshaws by hand in the east Indian city of Kolkata for more than three decades. A government ban on the two-wheel carts may leave him destitute.
“This is the only skill I have,’’ said Jowahar, 55, wearing a blue checkered sarong, vest and slippers as he waited outside the Kolkata mayor’s office for customers. He supports 11 family members in neighbouring Bihar state on less than $3 (Rs126) a day.
Jowahar is among about 18,000 rickshaw pullers in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal state and the only city in the world still served by so-called human horses. The Communist state government says the men have no place in its plans to turn India’s old British colonial headquarters into a modern investment destination rivalling Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi.
“It’s inhuman for a human being to carry another in this day and age,’’ said Mayor Bikash Bhattacharya, 55, a member of West Bengal’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist). “We have made so much progress. We want rickshaws off the streets.’’
The government is building roads and shopping malls, and using tax breaks to lure companies such as India’s Tata Group and Indonesia’s Salim Group to new trade zones.
West Bengal drew $337 million of overseas investment from 2000 to 2006, according to the federal Commerce Ministry.
By comparison, India’s most industrialized state of Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, lured $7.5 billion during the same period. Federal capital New Delhi attracted $7.04 billion and southern Karnataka state, powered by the technology hub of Bangalore, received $2.05 billion.
“Our government in its initial years worked extensively for farmers and other poor sections of the society,’’ said Jyoti Basu, 94, who retired in 2000 after 25 years as West Bengal’s chief minister. “We’ve been slow in attracting investments and we now realize we need funds to make this a poverty-free state.’’
Basu first led attempts to ban the rickshaw pullers, known as rickshawalas, in 1984. Two other tries also failed because of protests by the pullers’ unions.
The state is determined this time, Mayor Bhattacharya said. Lawmakers passed a bill in December barring Kolkata’s estimated 5,000 carts and officials plan to phase them out gradually.
Current Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya — no relation to the mayor — declined an interview request through his press secretary, Sharit Banerjee.
“The sight of a human pulling other humans on his shoulders for a pittance does not enhance Kolkata’s image,’’ the chief minister told India’s Tribune newspaper in 2005.
Rickshaws were invented in the 1860s in Japan, where they were known as jinrikisha, literally “human-powered vehicles.’’
They arrived in India about 20 years later, surfacing first in the Himalayan hill station of Simla, Britain’s summer capital. By the turn of the century, Chinese traders were using them to transport goods and people around the city then known as Calcutta.
The hand-to-mouth lives of pullers have been featured in books such as The Phantom Rickshaw by Briton Rudyard Kipling in 1885, Rickshaw Boy by China’s Lao She in 1936 and City of Joy by Frenchman Dominique Lapierre in 1985.
China and Pakistan banned human horses a half-century ago. In countries such as Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia, carts now are pulled by bicycle rather than hand, or have become auto rickshaws — three-wheeled taxis with engines.
Still, rickshawalas remain the cheapest form of transportation in Kolkata, costing about Rs10 (23 U.S. cents) per kilometer. They cross class, caste and religious boundaries, ferrying children to school, negotiating lanes too small for other vehicles and winning customers during monsoons.
“Rickshaws have been a part of my life,’’ said S.B. Roychoudhury, 86, a retired tea-estate manager in Kolata. “It’s the only transport that has worked even during heavy rains when the streets have been waterlogged.’’
Like Jowahar, many pullers come from Bihar. Often they live in shanty towns in Kolkata, sharing rooms and meals to save money to send back to their villages.
Ramdev Sahu, 45, and Lakku Jadhav, 50, from Bihar’s Samastipur district, said they earn about Rs5,000 a month. Jadhav said he has educated four sons on his wage and is proud that they won’t have to follow in his footsteps.
The pullers are unsure what will become of them when the ban takes effect. The government, which has discussed lending the men money to buy and operate three-wheelers, hasn’t announced formal proposals.
“We are planning to set up self-help groups so that these people can find employment,’’ Mayor Bhattacharya said. “We are also planning to set up parking zones and employ the rickshaw pullers to manage the areas.’’
Jowahar said he wouldn’t mind being turned into a tourist attraction instead of plying his usual rounds. Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto still uses some pullers as draws for visitors.
Still, his confidence in the government is waning. At home in Bihar’s Kishanganj district, his wife, daughter-in-law, five grandchildren and three sisters all depend on his wage, he said.