After years of pulling in the face of poverty, rickshaw drivers are joining hands to form a collective that helps them access loans and own a vehicle..

For inclusive growth, the poor need to get credit. There are more mobiles than bank accounts in the country and this has to be rectified. - S. Sridhar, CMD, Central Bank of India.

Usha Rai

Winding through the gullies and bylanes of Lucknow, edging past honking cars and tempos, at times with 8-10 children crammed into them, are 50,000 cycle rickshaws. In many ways they are the lifeline of the city but the men plying them are among the most exploited. They are dalits, tribals, landless labour from the rural outskirts of the city of Nawabs and Bihar. They are illiterate and unskilled.

Now, in a novel venture, half-a-dozen organisations including the American India Foundation (AIF), Central Bank of India, Bharatiya Micro Credit and the Rickshaw Sangh, a collective of rickshaw drivers, have come together to provide dignity, status and loans that are paid back in a year so that the rickshaws become a permanent asset of the drivers. Hanumant Rawat, Director of AIF's livelihood programmes, says the collective with its bargaining power is able to get quality rickshaws at subsidised rates and, equally important, counters the stigma attached to dalits and the landless when the Sangh goes shopping on their behalf. With a uniform, driving licence and municipal permit, rickshaw pulling is now moving to the ranks of a profession.

Last month, in a carnival-like atmosphere, some 1,500 green-and-yellow rickshaws and pushcarts were handed over to the drivers and their wives in Lucknow. Central Bank of India CMD S. Sridhar, flagged off the procession of rickshaws driven by their proud owners. Dressed in their Sunday best, the wives and children of the rickshaw drivers jumped on to the rickshaws and pushcarts, cheering and waving joyously as they drove off shouting, ‘ sach hua sapna, rickshaw hua apna' (our dreams have come true, we own our rickshaws).

Joining in the revelry were Vice Chair of AIF Pradeep Kashyap, Vijay Pandey of BMC that will run the project.

Lending an inclusive hand

Says Sridhar, “For inclusive and double-digit growth of the country, the poor need to have bank accounts and get credit. There are more mobiles than bank accounts in the country and this has to be rectified.” The bank wants its services to cover less-privileged sections of society such as rickshaw pullers, taxi drivers and others needing microfinance.

While the bank provides loans for buying the rickshaws, AIF provides the first loan default guarantee (FLDG) on behalf of its NGO partners. NGOs recommended by AIF (in Lucknow it is BMC) receive the loans and disburse them to individual drivers. PNB and SIDBI also support the rickshaw programme.

The rickshaw collective

AIF has been promoting the Rickshaw Sangh programme since 2008 in Assam, Bihar, UP, Delhi and the NCR. Some 14,000 rickshaw pullers have been given vehicles. The ultimate goal is to financially assist one lakh rickshaw pullers to own a vehicle. Each rickshaw costs Rs 11,000 and the weekly repayment instalment is Rs 225. On joining the Rickshaw Sangh, members are entitled to a package of benefits that include two sets of uniforms, driving licence and municipal permit to ply their vehicle, life and vehicle insurance, a bank account, a solar lantern with battery backup, and a mobile phone with lifetime connection.

Negotiations are also on to create, in association with a mobile company, a rickshaw service that is similar to call-taxis.

Owner's pride

Rawat of AIF says 94 per cent of rickshaw drivers hire vehicles from the kathalwalas or custodians, who each own about 50-500 rickshaws, many of them in dilapidated conditions and suffer frequent breakdowns, with the driver bearing the cost of repair. The daily rent is Rs 30.

Mouzam Ali, who worked his rickshaw for 15 years without being able to save a single rupee, says through the Rickshaw Sangh, the rickshaw drivers have become a pressure group no longer invisible on the Government radar. “My name is on Government records and, finally, I too will be able to access some of the facilities available to residents of my town,” he says. The uniform and driving licence have given rickshaw pullers a new status and even shields them from harassment by the police.

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Wife's word matters!

The rickshaws are given in the joint name of the husband and wife, and the responsibility for timely repayment largely rests with the women. Bharatiya Micro Credit has worked on the concept of joint liability groups (JLGs). Each group has three to five members. If one member of the JLG is unable to pay because he is travelling or has a personal problem, the other members chip in and pay the dues. Both Rawat of AIF and Pandey of BMC proudly state that till date there has not been a single default in payment.

The joint control on earnings also helps the couples plan for the next stage of income generation through the purchase of a pushcart, a rickshaw trolley or even a second rickshaw, again funded by a bank loan and repaid in weekly instalments. Without the kathalwala breathing down their back, the health of the rickshaw drivers is also improving. They ply for five to six hours and get adequate rest now, they say.

Meanwhile, as the rickshaws ply all over the city and are highly visible, Kashyap of AIF is talking to corporate houses to advertise their products on the back of the rickshaws. The money raised through the ads will be shared with the rickshaw pullers.

THE SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC MOBILITY After becoming a rickshawowner is most apparent in the life ofSunder Lal, 38, and his wife, Rani, 35. Lalearns Rs 7,000 a month and plans to rentout his first rickshaw at Rs 30 a day afterbuying a second rickshaw through a loan.With two daughters married, he plans tosave the Rs 30 a day earned from his firstrickshaw for his third daughter's marriage.He has a TV at home, a toilet in the house,and plans to send the two youngerchildren to school. "In my uniform, I nowfeel I belong to a company," he says. Hisonly worry today centres around his16-year-old son with a brain-relateddevelopmental disorder. Lal hopes to gethis son the requisite medical help with thehelp of BMC.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 10, 2010)
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