Calcutta aims for wheel-free revolution

The city wants to ban rickshaws as `dehumanising', writes Tim McGirk. But having no work is more degrading still
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It is abominable to see a man doing the work of a beast. In Calcutta, men are still pulling rickshaws, a task that in every other city in the world has been replaced by horses or motor-engines. There are few sights more wrenching than an underfed man, bent like a bamboo stalk in the monsoon as he fights through flooded streets wheeling two merchants, plump and dry, in his rickshaw.

One puller, Vuvanershad Prasad Yadav, says: "I go barefoot when I pull my rickshaw. That way I don't slip and fall so much during the floods." His nightmare is tumbling down a submerged open manhole.

Now the Communists who rule Calcutta are trying to ban the city's 25,000 rickshaw-pullers - by next month. Lenin is often quoted as having said: "The road to world revolution lies through Peking, Shanghai and Calcutta." And the rickshaw-pullers, it seems, are responsible for slowing down the proletariat's progress which, lately, has detoured towards capitalism: these days the Bengal Marxists are busily courting multinational companies in the US and Europe.

As the state transport minister, Subhas Chakravarty, explains, the job of rickshaw-puller should be eradicated because it is "dehumanising". The minister says he has never ridden in a rickshaw pulled by a human being. He finds it too repugnant.

But critics insist that the minister, in his haste to speed up Calcutta's traffic and rid the streets of this inhumane colonial relic, may be stranding the rickshaw-pullers without any other possible work. As Arun Deb, a social consultant, says: "There's no doubt the rickshaw-puller is a feudal anachronism, but isn't it more degrading to leave these people without any job?"

The rickshaw, a Japanese invention, was brought to Calcutta in 1918 by the Chinese. Mr Yadav has a family of 15 back home in Bihar who live off his earnings. He trots up to 20 miles a day and makes about 80 rupees (roughly pounds 1.45). Even by Calcutta's standards this is a pittance, but enough to keep him and his relatives from starving. He is a short man, all muscle and bone after 25 years of squeezing past cars, trams, buses and lorries.

"If they take away my rickshaw, I'll just have to eat less and fill my belly with water," he says. Already he goes without breakfast, and his big meal of the day consists of a handful of dried pulses, spiced up with a chilli and onion, plus a chapatti or two. Dinner is a cup of tea. Even if the other rickshaw-pullers were supporting families of only 10 people, the proposed ban could make the difference between life and death for more than a quarter of a million. Thousands of blacksmiths and wheelwrights also depend on the trade.

Mr Chakravarty insists that the rickshaw-pullers would be given work around new lorry depots outside Calcutta, but they have yet to be built. The rickshaw men are nearly all outsiders, from Bihar, and, because they do not vote in Calcutta, they lack Communist patronage. The minister is quoted as saying, in rather uncomradely fashion: "We did not ask them to come here and do this."

For the Communists, the rickshaw-puller is a reminder of how the world revolution came to Calcutta and got bogged down. Perhaps no ideology could solve Calcutta's main problem: too many people. Wave after wave of refugees, fleeing war, famine and caste persecution in the countryside, have swelled Calcutta's population to over 12 million. More than a third of them live in slums and huddled under plastic sheeting on the pavement. They are worse off than the rickshaw-pullers.

Many visitors to Calcutta see the rickshaw as a symbol of the city's misery, its terrible exploitation. Dominique Lapierre's novel, The City of Joy - later turned into a film - chronicled the life of a rickshaw- puller, racked by tuberculosis, who was so poor that he borrowed money against the sale of his skeleton.

The travel writer Geoffrey Moorhouse wrote: "There is nothing more eerie and ominous than to go late at night down a Calcutta street - and to be pursued all the way by the wordless sound of one rickshaw-bell after another being tapped out to mark your passage."

Mr Yadav does not bother with the extra expense of a bell. "Who can hear it, anyway, with all this honking noise?" says the rickshaw-puller who works the lanes behind Merlin Park, in Calcutta's Old Ballygunge neighbourhood. He sleeps in his rickshaw, arms and legs dangling like a broken puppet's.

Calcutta's traffic jerks along chaotically at under five miles per hour, less than half London's speed. The transport minister thinks that ridding the city of rickshaws will accelerate it. But their defenders argue that since most of Calcutta is a jumble of narrow lanes, the rickshaw- pullers go where cars and buses cannot enter.

They argue that in a city as clogged as Calcutta, where 125 new cars are added to the roads every day, the rickshaw-puller is one of the few non-polluting modes of transportation that does not add to the awful miasma.

The rickshaw-pullers also run toddlers to school and back, help the elderly cross through flooded alleyways and often serve as the city's only reliable ambulances.

"They are always there, at any time of night," says Arun Deb. "In my neighbourhood, we've had the same rickshaw-puller for over 20 years. He's known and trusted by everyone. You'd think a leftist government would care more for them."

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