When the Communists came to power in China, one of their first acts was to abolish the hand-pulled rickshaw. What an irony that in the second decade of the 21st century, the Communist leaders in West Bengal wait for the remaining rickshaw-pullers to die! ~ A.J. Philip1
The Esplanade district is a large commercial area in the heart of Kolkata, India. On a warm February day while heading toward the markets on Lindsay Street, I observed a pair of rickshaw pullers hauling their human cargo along at a brisk trot.
Kolkata’s poorest residents, the rickshaw pullers often can not afford to even stay in a dera or afford health care when they fall ill. “What the government is attempting to do [by imposing the ban] is an anti-poor step by the Communist leaders who always said they were fighting for the poor.” Some rickshaw wallahs are resigned to the imminent end of their livelihood and pin their hopes on being offered Kolkata’s (Calcutta) rickshaw pullers wash and cook in their dera.
Rickshaw pulling is a male-only occupation. The pullers laughed when I asked whether a woman might do such work. “It is too dangerous,” they said, not mentioning any physical limitations.
Mohammed Yakub cooks lunch as his mother Shanaz brings his child Nadia for a rare visit. The vast majority of rickshaw wallahs come from Bihar and once in Kolkata, they sleep on the street or in their rickshaws or in a dera ~ a combination garage and repair shop and dormitory managed by someone called a sardar. For sleeping privileges in a dera, pullers pay 100 rupees (about $2.50) a month and they only visit their home once or twice a year if they are lucky. This was an extraordinary scene, one which rarely happens for most rickshaw pullers who never get to see their children and share the joys of watching them grow up.
Vivek Pasman sleeps next to his father, rickshaw puller Pankaj Pasman outside of Kali temple in South Kolkata (Calcutta). The family moved to Kolkata 40 years ago from Bihar and once lived in small huts in this exact location but the city grew around them and they were forced out of their homes and onto the pavement. The family has been living on the sidewalk where their huts once were for the past forty years. They have chosen to stay with their families and live without a home rather than live in a dera. They gross between 100 and 150 rupees a day, out of which they have to pay 20 rupees for the use of the rickshaw and an occasional 75 or more for a payoff if a policeman stops them for, say, crossing a street where rickshaws are prohibited.
Sixty-year-old Firoj from Lashmikantpor said sometimes the bags of passengers would be 20 kilograms.
Salim said, “Money makes happy. The only business is money. [I] do it for the money.”
Raju is from Kolkata, where he lives with his family. Salim stays in Kolkata for 4 to 5 months, and then he heads back north to his family in Bihar during the low season.
Kolkata’s (Calcutta) rickshaw pullers take children to school and people to work around Ripon Street in central Calcutta. The rickshaw pullers steadiest customers are schoolchildren. Middle-class families contract with a puller to take a child to school and pick him up; the puller essentially becomes a family retainer. Ironically, they become the trusted and beloved part of the family and yet they can not see their own children who live far away in Bihar.