Saturday 8 September 2018

Scenes From The City Of Joy - 1, The Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata

Kolkata (Calcutta) is sometimes referred to as the city of joy. The hand pulled rickshaw is one of its iconic images. It is the only city in India that still has this mode of transport introduced during the period of British rule. Almost all of the men involved in this work come from other parts of India, predominantly Bihar, one of the poorer states. 

Dorik Jadab, rickshaw puller from Bihar
Navin Das, rickshaw puller from Bihar
I became interested in the rickshaw pullers last year when I visited Kolkata for the first time. These men are often of small stature, very lean and yet somehow manage to transport passengers of all shapes and sizes, sometimes two or three at the same time. The passengers often have enormous piles of shopping from the many bazaars and this too is loaded onto the rickshaw which then has to be maneuvered through narrow lanes and main thoroughfares most of which are clogged with trucks, cars, trams, buses and myriad other forms of transport. In recent years there have been state government proposals to outlaw this kind of work on grounds of it being inhumane. The rickshaw pullers protested that having no other qualifications or training they would not be able to find alternative work and so the ban was not enacted. Further proposals were developed to replace the rickshaws with a battery powered model. To date this has not happened.

Someone I spoke to told me that this work does not require strength but is all about balance. That person has a nice office job, so I am not sure how he would know. I wanted to know more about the lives of these men, where they come from, how they live and what they think of the work. On my more recent visit, with the help of an interpreter, I spoke to two of the rickshaw pullers, randomly encountered in Chitpur Road and Beadon Street in the northern part of the city.

Rickshaw puller with customer, North Kolkata
Navin Das is 65 years old. He told me that he has been doing this work for 33 years, ever since he came to Kolkata. Shortly after arriving from his village in Bihar he saw the rickshaws and decided it was something that he could do to earn money. His wife, two sons, three daughters and five grandchildren remain in Bihar. He works for two months at a time and then goes home for one month. His working hours are from 5am until 8pm. He does not own the rickshaw but rents it for 30 rupees per day. The rental charge includes an element for repairs for which he does not have to pay extra. Most rickshaw owners will have between 75 and 100 vehicles in their possession so quite an earner if you are receiving 30 rupees per day seven days per week for their hire. Navin can earn up to 300 rupees on a good day and about 200 rupees at less busy times. 

I was curious to know where he lives when he is in Kolkata. He pointed to the rickshaw and explained that each evening, he pulls it to the side of the road and sleeps on it and has done so since he started working. This is to maximise the value of his earnings and to be able to take back as much money as possible to his family. Whilst he was speaking I realised that in the 33 years he has been in this city, he has probably never, or very rarely, slept indoors. 

I asked him about the customers. He said that most of them are polite and respectful. There are fixed tariffs so there are no arguments over fares. The only people he does not like to take are those who are drunk who sometimes try to avoid paying at all or occasionally offer many times the fixed amount. He dislikes both. 

Dorik Jadab is 36 and is also from Bihar. He has been a rickshaw puller for ten years. He is a striking figure with a yellow headscarf and an impressive moustache. He has four children aged from 8-18 who live in his home village with their mother. He also pays the standard 30 rupees daily rental and makes a similar amount of money to Navin. He likes the work but suffers from problems with his legs due to the constant pressure of pulling heavy loads. Dorik sleeps in a wood storage facility together with several other workers. He said that he does not have to pay for this but did not explain on what basis he is there.

Tilak Mahato
Navin said that the rickshaw, if looked after properly will last for 10-15 years and that he has heard of some lasting even longer than this. I visited one of the repair workshops where three men were carrying out maintenance work to Tilak Mahato's rickshaw. Repairs normally take place overnight, outside of operational hours and the work can spill out onto the roads if the workshops are full. Repairs are usually completed within 24 hours and almost always within a few days. Tilak is 58 years old and comes from Jharkand, formerly part of Bihar and now a state in its own right. He was sitting patiently whilst the work was being done and explained that every two years he arranges for re-painting of the woodwork to help reserve it and for minor repairs to be carried out. He has been a rickshaw puller for 40 years.

Waiting for customers
Tilak waits for his rickshaw to be repaired
You can see more pictures of Kolkata here.

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