India File

For this rickshaw puller, I-Day means little

Shobha Roy | Updated on August 14, 2018 Published on August 14, 2018

Cycle of life Remains the same for Abdul and family DEBASISH BHADURI   -  Debasish Bhaduri

Having spent a significant part of his life ferrying passengers on his hand-pulled rickshaw, Mohammad Abdul, now 65, laments the way things have changed. Abdul moved from Katihar in the eastern part of Bihar to Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) way back in 1969 to support himself and his family back in his hometown. He was merely 16 years old.

After initial years of struggle, doing whatever little work came his way, starting from running errands for a local tea shop owner to lifting and transporting fruits and vegetables at Lake Market in South Kolkata, Abdul took to transporting passengers on the light-weight, wooden hand-pulled rickshaws.

“I have been in this profession for nearly 40 years now. I started pulling rickshaws at the age of 20; things were very different then. The roads were not so congested and there were fewer cars and bikes. So people were dependent on us for moving from one place to another. But now everything has changed; now we struggle to find customers on most days,” Abdul told BusinessLine.

Abdul is right indeed. Back in the 70s, 80s or even in the 90s, hand-pulled rickshaws were considered as the only option for people who wanted to move around the lanes and alleys of the old part of the city, which were rather impassable for other modes of transport such as taxis, cars or autos due to heavy waterlogging during monsoons.

The rickshaw-wallas kept passengers above water while they literally waded through the flooded streets.

Winds of change

These hand-pulled wooden rickshaws have been an integral part of British heritage.

Abdul is witness to this change. “In those days people had all the time in the world and preferred being ferried leisurely around on rickshaws. Since we pulled rickshaws in certain specific areas we were very well acquainted and had a routine set of passengers. They knew us and we knew them (personally). We also used to pick up goods and deliver them at their place sometimes, apart from carrying their children to and from school,” he said.

However, now, his passengers are far and few; most of them take the ride only if there is no other alternative. On one hand, while social critics have been calling for the ban of this mode of transport — pulled by one human being for another — even common people have been avoiding the usage of this mode more on compassionate grounds.

Farming to the rescue

While there has been little change in Abdul’s daily work schedule — his day usually begins as early as 5 o’clock in the morning and goes on till around 10 pm with only a short break for lunch and a quick nap around noon time — he has stopped depending on this as his ‘only source of livelihood’. In fact, pulling handrickshaws today serves as an ‘additional income’ for him with agriculture serving as the mainstay. “I have a small plot of land in my hometown and I grow paddy and other vegetables there almost through the year. In the months of July and August, when agricultural activity is relatively low, I come here and pull rickshaws to earn a living,” he said. Abdul has to pay a daily rental of around ₹20 for the rickshaw, and on a good day he earns ₹300-400 a day. This is certainly more than what he used to earn around 20 years back, but then the value of money has also decreased over the years, he rued.

Abdul has four sons and three daughters. The daughters are married and settled. His sons are working in different cities — two in Chandigarh and two in Bihar as daily wage labourers.

India is set to celebrate its 71 years of Independence this year. But for people like Abdul, struggling to earn a decent living, it means little. “Governments come and go; but very little change comes into our lives,” he said.

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Published on August 14, 2018
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