In defence of rickshaw pullers

In defence of rickshaw pullers

In 2005, West Bengal’s government decided hand- pulled rickshaws in Kolkata were a pitiful “sight", and decided to outlaw them. Pitiful or not, rickshaw pullers were up in arms, since the government was robbing them of their livelihood. But this was hardly the first time governments have hurt the urban poor—street vendors, rickshaw pullers—by trying to be too altruistic.

The Delhi high court on Wednesday stepped in to ensure that, for once, a government’s noble intention doesn’t make for an ignoble result. In Manushi Sangathan v. Govt. of Delhi, it set aside a Delhi municipal corporation limit on cycle rickshaw licences—an arbitrary limit that prohibited more urban poor from eking out their livelihood. It also struck down a policy that required the rickshaw plier to be its owner—one that had apparently been in place to “minimize the exploitation of the rickshaw pullers by owners".

The policy has worsened exploitation. With the artificial limit on the number of licences in the market, a poor immigrant to Delhi desperate for a day’s wage would have borrowed, say, a friend’s rickshaw or started plying his own without getting a licence. But if he encountered a policeman, he would have to shell out more than his day’s wages to avoid being harassed or prevent his rickshaw from getting impounded. Manushi Sangathan, the Delhi NGO that filed the petition in question, estimates that rickshaw pullers in the Capital pay Rs10 crore a month in bribes.

This situation is hardly limited to Delhi, so the court’s judgement does offer insight for other growing cities in India.

First, there’s the need to examine the unintended effects of urban regulation. Traffic or pollution aside, every time a municipal body caps licences for vehicles, it hurts not just suppliers who wish to enter the market, but also consumers who are left at the mercy of the few who have licences.

Second, there’s the need to think of helping the urban poor through property rights. Because of the low start-up capital involved, street vending and rickshaw pulling are two easy jobs for migrants. But since they aren’t granted rights through licensing, they are left at the mercy of cops and civil servants.

Instead, governments wish to “help" the poor avoid the misery of such jobs. They enact restrictions or try to compensate with welfare schemes, all of which only prolongs the misery.

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