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In a landmark judgement, the Delhi high court on 10 February gave rickshaw pullers (rickshawallas) the right to work on Delhi streets. The ruling was in favour of Manushi Sangathan and Initiatives for Transport Development, against the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Delhi government. The two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had petitioned that the ceiling imposed by MCD on the number of cycle rickshaws and the ban on rented ones (allowing only owner-operators to ply) be both declared null and void. They also filed related pleas to prevent Delhi Police from carrying out its systematic policy of eliminating—via zoning rules, impounding and even destroying them—cycle rickshaws from Delhi altogether.

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint

Introduced in 1940 as an improvement over the hand rickshaw, the number of cycle rickshaws had gone up from 20,000 in 1975 to 600,000-700,000 in 2006, as per the NGOs’ estimates. The NGOs also petitioned against an earlier Delhi high court verdict (Hemaraj, 2006) that had capped the ceiling at 99,000, contending that it amounted to “hostile discrimination" since there was no ceiling on motor vehicles. Relying on an earlier decision that the Delhi Master Plan be adhered to, the NGOs argued that MCD be ordered to provide segregated tracks for bicycles and rickshaws in most parts of the city, and parking lots for them. The Master Plan also stipulated that in parts of the Old City, cycle rickshaws and walking be explicitly promoted.

In response, MCD defended the 1960 byelaws that disallowed renting of rickshaws. It cited additional byelaws introduced in 1994 that authorized the fining, impounding them, and even, after a public auction, “smashing it into scrap after a reasonable time". In support of their overall position, Delhi Police had stated that in parts of the Old City, “because of their numbers being so large, the road network is unable to cope up with their movement and idle parking".

The court decided overwhelmingly in favour of the NGOs and issued two broad sets of directives. The first set pertained to the operation of rickshaws. The judges overruled the cap imposed on the number of rickshaws, quashed the sole owner-plier policy of the 1960 byelaws, and also stipulated that the additional byelaws permitting impounding and scrapping of rickshaws were illegal. They also called for parking space for rickshaws. However, the court upheld the zoning restrictions and the ban on the use of cycle rickshaws on arterial roads.

The second set of directives issued was that various government agencies (MCD, Delhi Development Authority and so on) constitute a task force to examine all aspects of road traffic in Delhi in order to reduce congestion and pollution, and to provide equitable access to all—motor and non-motor—vehicles. The court recommended that all options be considered, including stringent restrictions on the “use and movement" of private cars, and a stiff congestion fee as in London on vehicles “entering some parts of the city".

This article so far has only tried to summarize the 67-page judgement. Needless to say, I support Madhu Kishwar, founder of Manushi, who has tirelessly campaigned for the right to livelihood for hawkers and rickshaw pullers, as has Parth Shah, head of another NGO. Chief justice A.P. Shah of the Delhi high court and justice S. Muralidhar, known for their recent rulings on decriminalizing homosexuality and calling for judges to declare their assets, and justice S. Ravindra Bhat, who wrote this ruling, deserve kudos. That it has taken the judiciary to initiate congestion charging reflects a failure of current economic policymakers. They have focused mainly on building roads, but not on using them efficiently.

The Delhi Police and MCD come across as anti-poor. Given the explosive increase in the number of cars, which occupy far more space, the statement by Delhi Police that “the road network is unable to cope with their (cycle rickshaws’) movement and idle parking" is appalling. This is akin to complaining in 2010 about cross-border terrorism from the Tamil Tigers, while ignoring the Taliban.

Nevertheless, there is a neglected aspect to the issue, distinct from the rich car owners versus poor rickshaw pullers, motorized versus non-motorized vehicles divide, which is at the centre of this case. The “hostile discrimination" that the NGOs complained about is not only against cycles rickshaws, but also against all commercial passenger vehicles. They are also subject to the hukm (order) of the licence raj, as the joint commissioner of police (traffic) stated in his response to the ruling.

The accompanying table documents this discrimination. Between March 1999 and March 2002, the number of autorickshaws remained exactly 86,985, which must reflect a ceiling. This jumped to over 130,000 in November 2002, then fell steeply to over 49,000 as of March 2003. As compressed natural gas for buses became mandatory during that year, the numbers of all commercial vehicles (buses, autos, taxis and goods) dropped.

Personal vehicles are far more exempt from regulations, with emission and other norms applying gradually. However, when combined with steep pricing of all vehicle area, permitting commercial vehicles to operate more freely can lower both congestion and emissions significantly.

(PS: “…a major failure of our economic liberalization… is the unrestricted use, coupled with permission for increased production of private cars"—from my review in The Deccan Herald, 6 August 2000, of Ashok Desai’s book The Price of Onions.)

Vivek Moorthy is professor of economics at IIM, Bangalore. Comments are welcome at

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