India Interior

Forty years and pedalling, for bird lovers

N Shiva Kumar | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on November 06, 2015

Beak hour Rickshaw pullers return with birdwatchers after an early morning jaunt at the Keoladeo National Park

Yellow plates are the registered rickshaws allowed to ply in the sanctuary roads

Raju, at sunrise, contemplating both on sanctuary and his future prospects

The unofficial rickshaw guides of Bharatpur wish for a pension after a lifetime of service

A mere 200 km southwest of Delhi, in the dry state of Rajasthan nestles a mini-paradise in a secluded 29 sqkm.

This heaven-on-earth provides ‘daily bread’ not only to a multitude of feathered denizens but also a doughty group of rickshaw pullers from the tiny town of Bharatpur and surrounding villages. “I have been plying my rickshaw for over 40 years in this beautiful bird sanctuary,” says Raju, who is among the 123 rickshaw pullers licensed to operate in Keoladeo National Park (KNP).

Referred to as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, it is one of the smallest in India. With a chequered history of over 200 years, it remains a big draw for birds and tourists. The sanctuary clocks around one lakh visitors every year. “Very few who come are serious birdwatchers or trigger-happy photographers, but we are trained to cater to them as well as to casual visitors,” says Raju.

Informed ornithologists in their own right, the rickshaw pullers double as guides with a knack for bird spotting. They can rattle off bird names not only in English but also French and German. Raju is among a handful who are regularly sought after by well-known Indian birders for their ability to identify the precise location of a particular species.

Unlike other wildlife parks, KNP is closed to vehicular traffic. Only the registered rickshaws can ply here, each with an allotted yellow number-plate. Raju proudly points to the “No.7” displayed on his tricycle. The rickshaws can carry no more than two persons at a time. Raju says, “it’s a backbreaking job as most Indians are plump these days.”

Many of the rickshaw pullers are senior citizens, and the daily drudgery has taken its toll on their fragile limbs. “I am over 60 years and have to work hard to care for my family,” says Raju. Another says, “Every day before sunrise we promptly arrive at the gates of the sanctuary and take tourists for a ride. We charge only ₹100 per hour, which is a pittance at today’s cost of living. Only on public holidays we earn more.”

On most days it is a meagre earning for the rickshaw pullers, with hand-to-mouth existence. In summer, when both the birds and tourists are few and far between, they are forced to look elsewhere for sustenance. “We spent a lifetime in this paradise like regular employees and we even buy our own uniform of khaki pant and white shirt, which is obligatory,” laments one of them.

Though the rickshaw puller-guide was an innovative strategy devised years ago, many of them feel detached and alienated today. They are eager to turn permanent employees after a lifetime of service; some even yearn for a monthly pension in their old age.

More challenges loom as the authorities toy with the idea of introducing e-rickshaws or battery-operated carts. Raju welcomes the move, but wonders whether they can afford to buy the carts priced at ₹70,000 each. He hopes that banks or park authorities will donate the vehicles or offer loans to buy them.

Laxmikant Mudgal, a veteran local naturalist, is opposed to fast-running battery-operated carts as they are likely to crush small wildlife like squirrels, lizards, snakes and baby birds, besides robbing the sanctuary of its tranquillity.

Meanwhile, the authorities appear to be in no great hurry. “The rickshaws are one of the most eco-friendly ways to bond with the birds. We are exploring novel, lightweight cycle rickshaws to ensure ease of travel for both the rider and passengers,” says Bijo Joy, the current director of KNP. He is also pleased to inform that migratory birds have started arriving this year and so will tourists.

The writer is a photographer and wildlife enthusiast based in Noida

Published on November 06, 2015
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