CALCUTTA — In a narrow lane off Bowbazaar crossing, a small group of rickshaw pullers congregates around an ironmonger's fire. A rickshaw axle is being fashioned by hand. In another corner of the workshop, strips of rubber are being hammered onto a wooden-spoked wheel. A single bare bulb illuminates this medieval scene.
A short distance away is the entrance to one of Calcutta's new underground metro stations with its neon lights, cool marble floors, and stainless-steel trains that glide silently along a recently completed 10-mile network.
Calcutta is the only city in the world where a commuter can alight from a hand-pulled rickshaw and for 4 rupees (10 cents) board a modern mass-transit system. But if Subhas Chakraborty, the transportation czar of this "City of Joy" has his way, anachronisms like carriages pulled by people will soon be a thing of the past.
"We are not in tune with the times," says Mr. Chakraborty, the transport minister of West Bengal state, which includes the city of Calcutta.
Late last mont, the Communist-led West Bengal government also began to forcibly remove tens of thousands of street hawkers who over the years had encroached on many of the city's busiest streets, slowing traffic.
Called "Operation Sunshine," the cleanup was widely viewed as a move to make the city more appealing to investors and foreign dignitaries, including British Prime Minister John Major and several South Asian heads of state, who will arrive in January for an international investment conference.
Transportation Minister Chakraborty is determined to ban all hand-drawn rickshaws by early next year, closing a chapter in the history of world transportation many people say should have ended decades ago.
But for thousands of men like Ahmad Hussain that means a return to the poverty they fled when they migrated to Calcutta from neighboring states.
A life of toil on cobblestone streets
Mr. Ahmad is not sure how old he is. "About 60," he says, which means he has been pulling rickshaws for "about 40 years." A lifetime of toil is etched in the lines on his face, which looks as worn and as rutted as some of old Calcutta's cobblestone streets.
"At many times in my life, I felt like going away. I felt I could not pull another load. But where could I go? I would have nothing to eat," he says.
Every evening he comes to Bowbazaar to share a few chapatis (unleavened bread) with his friends and return the rickshaw he pulls to its owner, who collects 15 rupees (42 cents) a day in rent.
Ahmad works up to 16 hours a day to collect the 20 to 25 fares he needs to earn around $3 - just enough to provide the basic necessities for his wife and six children.
That means pulling as many as three passengers and their belongings per ride along a labyrinth of narrow back lanes, crowded bazaars, and busy thoroughfares. In a single day, he may pull his passengers as much as 38 miles.
It is a physical feat that a man half his age would shirk, even for an hour, let alone all day, seven days a week. During the monsoon season, Ahmad often has to wade through waist-deep water. In the blistering heat of summer, the pavement scorches his bare and callused feet.
"Poor people depend on us because we don't charge high fares, and there are parts of the city where proper vehicles can't go," Ahmad says.
'It's inhuman what we do'
The routine is so punishing that each rickshaw has to be overhauled every 12 months. But the emaciated men who pull these 200-pound carriages have no choice but to keep going year after year.
"It's wrong, it's inhuman what we do. If we were able to get some other work so we could eat, we would have taken it," says Muhammad Layakar, another rickshawallah, or rickshaw puller. "But it's not possible for us to learn another trade. We have no savings; we don't have money beyond our daily earnings."
There are 6,000 licensed, and perhaps 20,000 unlicensed, rickshaws in Calcutta, each worked by up to three pullers plying the city's congested streets.
Only 6 percent of Calcutta's total area is made up of roads, one of the lowest ratios in the world. With the city's 600,000 vehicles growing in number at the rate of 7 percent a year, streets are becoming ever more congested. Average speeds have dropped down from 9 m.p.h. to about 5 m.p.h.
Many rickshaw pullers feel abandoned by the government.
"They asked us into their unions, they asked us to help them stay in power, now they are discarding us like a piece of dirt," says Ahmad, referring to the Communist-led government that has ruled Calcutta for nearly 20 years on a platform advocating help for workers and peasants.
The state government says it intends to offer loans for purchasing gasoline-powered rickshaws to compensate licensed pullers, but the plans have yet to be finalized. Unlicensed pullers will not be included in the plan.
"Rickshaws are basically used for short hauls.... Taxis are actually cheaper," says A.K. Bandopadhyaya, Calcutta's principal traffic and transportation engineer. "Whether we like it or not, we can't have [these] incompatible road users."
Asim Burman, the city's municipal commissioner, says that the West Bengal state government's vision of a "new" Calcutta - purged of the uncomfortable sight of humans pulling other humans and the chaos caused by hawkers who crowd around every major street crossing - has widespread public support. "Things have got to such a point that we are failing to render basic services to our citizens. We have to do something about it," Mr. Burman says.
Alternative jobs needed
Moktar Ali, the acting general secretary of the All-Bengal Rickshaw Union, acknowledges that people should not pull rickshaws.
But he is critical of the state government for failing to provide alternative employment for his members.
"We fully agree, but give them bread," Mr. Ali says. "But before banning them, you should arrange an alternative."
As night falls on the back lanes of Bowbazaar, Ahmad and his friends still are uttering disbelief that the state government is about to take away their livelihood.
"If our rickshaws are taken away, it will be like having our hands broken," Ahmad says.
"We can't imagine what we will do."