A joyride

A joyride

Maddan Shahu, 62, holds up his hands to show callouses the size of ripe figs where the handles of his cycle rickshaw have rubbed at the skin for 35 years.

Shahu is one of Lucknow’s 50,000-odd cycle rickshaw pullers. Although he’s been pedalling one for over half his life, Shahu has never owned a rickshaw. Every day, he hires one from one of Lucknow’s rickshaw owners, the “katal wallahs", at a rate of 30 for about 8 hours. The money he earns after paying off the hire charges barely covers his basic cost of living.


But that’s about to change. This month, Shahu collected his own new rickshaw at the launch ceremony of the second phase of Rickshaw Sangh, a programme run by the NGO American India Foundation (AIF). Over the next year, he will pay for the vehicle in weekly instalments.

Through Rickshaw Sangh, rickshaw pullers are not only provided a vehicle, but also ID cards, drivers’ licences and uniforms, access to bank accounts and mediclaims. Since the union orders in bulk, it gets a competitive price for the rickshaws (each is bought at 10,500 and the rickshaw pullers pay 11,918 over 52 weeks). The 230 a week they pay is about 3 more than they would have given to the rickshaw owners, but the rewards are significant.

Shahu sits with hundreds of fellow rickshaw pullers and their families in a marquee on Lucknow’s Moti Mahal Lawns. A play is being performed. “My dream has been fulfilled," bellows the actor triumphantly over a sea of heads. “Now, I own my rickshaw!" The women hoot with laughter; the rickshaw pullers smile self-consciously at the exaggerated version of themselves on the stage, their new blue uniforms still stiff with creases.

Around them, 1,500 shiny new rickshaws and vegetable carts are waiting to be collected by their prospective owners. Some of them are receiving their first rickshaws, others are returning having paid off one vehicle, for a vegetable cart or a second rickshaw.

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Lucknow’s rickshaw pullers ply a thankless trade. At night, rickshaws crowd into the gaps between cars and motorbikes; a tangle of rusting metal and exhaust fumes. Some rickshaw pullers wear shirts, others rag-thin vests and sweat bands. Whole families perch precariously over the rickshaws, children dangling their legs on the bonnets of the cars behind. Most rickshaw pullers are migrants, landless and from scheduled castes or tribal communities; many are illiterate and have no formal identification or address, making them ineligible for bank accounts, ration cards, healthcare and other benefit schemes. Rickshaw pullers say they suffer regular harassment from the police and are accustomed to being fined or having their vehicles confiscated if they fail to produce the correct licence and documents.

Rickshaw Sangh has been in operation for about a year in Lucknow and longer in other cities such as Kanpur, Varanasi and Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, Patna and Bhagalpur in Bihar, and Guwahati in Assam. There are currently 3,100 members of the scheme in Lucknow—about 6% of the total number of rickshaw pullers in the city.

About 400 members have finished paying off their instalments and are now taking further loans for extra rickshaws, rickshaw trolleys or vegetable carts. Ahmad Ali and his wife Ruksana live in a tented hut in Aliganj, a suburb of the city. Ali has paid off his rickshaw and now wants a cart for his wife. Their neighbours Sanjai and Kiran are also paying off a second vehicle. Families repay in groups of five, the idea being that they are less likely to default if they rely on each other to keep up the instalments. It seems to work. Kiran recently gave birth to her second son. “When she had the baby, I couldn’t afford to pay the instalment," says Sanjai, “so Ruksana paid it for us."

In Hari Om Nagar, rickshaw puller Sunder Lal lives in a brick house with a satellite dish perched ostentatiously on its roof, paid for with the extra money he has made since joining Rickshaw Sangh. He is now paying off his third rickshaw, which he intends to hire out.

Lal represents what AIF hopes will be the future of the rest of the union. “It’s a chance to integrate these totally marginalized communities," says Pradeep Kashyap, AIF’s vice-chairman. “Now, they’re slowly becoming a part of the formal economy."

For Shahu, though, the most precious benefit is his new-found independence. “For 35 years, I’ve driven someone else’s cycle (rickshaw), and now I have my own," he says. “For the first time, I’ll be the boss."