KOLKATA, INDIA — Laxman Ray stands at a crossroads, eyeing four lanes of oncoming traffic. His hair is gray, his feet are bare on the hot asphalt, and his well-muscled arms are balancing the tool of his trade: a hand-pulled rickshaw.
Then he makes his dash, banging a bell and pulling a semi-terrified passenger from the mad, honking thoroughfare into a quiet, shop-filled lane.
The image the rickshaw pullers present - of man pulling man - has always been an uncomfortable one for cosmopolitan, educated Indians. Until now, this discomfort has been balanced by the desire to allow each Indian to maintain a livelihood, no matter how humble. But this once-prominent form of transport may finally be dying out through a blend of state regulations and the advancing age of rickshaw pullers.
Mr. Ray may be only 40-something - an age in America which can mean you're just getting started. In India, it's considered the downward slope. Ray would have to depend on his sons to support him if his body gave out one day. But he doesn't want his children to follow in his footsteps, he admits. He's grateful to be a rickshaw puller for one reason: It has allowed him to feed and clothe his family, who still live in poverty in the nearby state of Bihar. "It's a hard job, it's a hot job," he says, wiping sweat from his neck with a long scarf. "But it's the only job I have."
"It is a very hard life for these people," adds Mukhtar Ali, head of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union in Kolkata, which has fought state efforts to ban hand-pulled rickshaws. "But it is better for them to labor with self-respect than to be unemployed on the streets."
Symbol some want to forget
Along with more-modern vehicles, those streets are crowded with horse-drawn carts, free-roaming cows, and cycle-powered flatbed trucks, but states are banning rickshaws because the governments say they slow down traffic. They also run counter to a presentable image of high-tech progress.
Yet rickshaws have some distinct advantages over cars, Mr. Ali says. They are pollution free, and when the monsoons come in July, they are just about the only vehicles that don't stall on flood-prone streets. "In the monsoon, even the chief minister hires a rickshaw."
Originally brought to India by Chinese immigrants, rickshaws were a major technological advance over the sedan chair, or palanquin, found in 19th century Europe and Asia. Invented in Japan in the 1860s, the jin riki sha required only one puller, compared with the two to four footmen required to carry a single person on a palanquin. Rickshaws became the favored form of transport for the middle and upper classes, not just in India, but across Europe as well.
While the hand-pulled rickshaw gave way to the automobile in much of Europe by the turn of the century, and bicycle-powered rickshaws across the rest of the Indian subcontinent, they have stubbornly held their own in the job-hungry streets of Kolkata, long an economic powerhouse and home of good factory jobs, but now merely a magnet for cheap labor from Bihar, Bangladesh, and beyond.
Of the estimated 24,000 rickshaw pullers in Kolkata, Mohammad Molhu is fairly typical. A migrant from poverty-stricken Bihar five years ago, Mr. Molhu earns some 100 rupees (about $2) a day. Of this amount, he pays 20 rupees a day to rent his rickshaw, 30 rupees for food, and the rest goes to his wife and five children in Bihar. On bad days, he must pay some 75 rupees to policemen to avoid charges for some traffic violation or another, which he says the police usually just pocket for themselves.
"My children, they are going to school," says Molhu from under the awning of his rickshaw in the mid-afternoon heat. "I don't want them to do this job. It's too hard."
Mohammad Sayeed, a cheerful 30-something from the village of Baisali in Bihar, says that if the government wants rickshaws like his off the road, they should help him buy a bicycle-rickshaw instead. "I would like to change to a cycle rickshaw, it would be easier," he says. "Anything to put food in my stomach."
If the rickshaw pullers are expecting sympathy from the State Transport Authority, run for the past 24 years by the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), they may be disappointed. In 1996, the state ordered the banning of all hand-pulled rickshaws and confiscated thousands for destruction. After much protest, the state backed down, allowing the rickshaws to operate away from major traffic corridors. Now the state appears ready to wait the rickshaw pullers out.
Loss by attrition
"The numbers of rickshaw pullers is so insignificant, it does not call for a new scheme for their rehabilitation into alternative jobs," says A.K. Das, joint secretary of the State Transport Authority of West Bengal state.
"The persons in this trade are mostly aged, and their numbers are greatly reduced. After a certain time, a gradual process of elimination will take place. This issue will die its natural death."
But rickshaw puller Abdul Jabbar says he's not going to just go away. "The Indian ministers say India should have no more rickshaws, but they don't realize that this is my work," says the stern-faced rickshaw puller, sipping tea from a terra-cotta cup. "If there are no rickshaws, I have no work. Then what happens?"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor