Wheels in Motion: In Kolkata, the Cycle Rickshaw Is Being Reinvented

Rickshaw wallas who can afford it are moving to the more expensive and less labour-intensive electric rickshaws.

Kolkata used to be known around the world as a place with abject poverty, where humans performed the demeaning task of hand-pulling other humans on rickshaws. These rickshaws are now all but gone.

What has survived though, in the city’s outskirts, is the regular cycle rickshaw, the sort that you see in every Indian habitat of any size. But now a quiet revolution is taking place in this hitherto unchanging corner at the bottom of the pyramid.

The timeless cycle rickshaw is getting a makeover. It is becoming battery operated, the batteries housed in a box beneath the passenger seat. Instead of the jingle of the regular bicycle bell you can now hear a squeaky electrical horn and come nightfall, the rickshaw in its new avatar is lit by multi-coloured little twinkling lights.

I spotted the first of these a couple of months ago, but in the short span of time since then, over half of the cycle rickshaws in my neighbourhood have become battery driven. These are turning many traditional notions about the cycle rickshaw upside down.

The cycle rickshaw was the first point of entry into the job market for the unskilled and impoverished male. It cost under Rs 25,000 and the repayment for the loan that many rickshaw wallas took was affordable. The fare structure in neighbourhoods is set by the local rickshaw association, keeping the repayment burden in mind.

The electric rickshaw, which is now taking over, costs around Rs 65,000. A typical financing scheme goes like this: Rs 20,000 down payment and Rs 2,000 per month repayment for just under two years. Financial inclusion is spreading, and a rickshaw walla tells me he has taken a loan from Bandhan Bank. The terms are similar: Rs 20,000 down payment, Rs 500 repayment per week and a Rs 3,000 discount at the end for regular repayment.

How can you find the Rs 20,000 since fares have not changed, I asked one of them. He first demurred and then explained that since driving the electric rickshaw required no effort, he could do more trips per day. But if demand remains the same, what will better supply do? I will find out over time.

One rickshaw puller says that he is partly impaired by an accident and so the battery rickshaw is a boon for him. Another says he is also a part-time plumber. I get the feeling that the electric rickshaw is something whose time has come. So whoever can is getting one.

One obvious change for the better is that we will now be slowly spared the sight of very poor men struggling to peddle forward middle-class passengers. These electric rickshaws now breeze past, making just a swishing sound.

What will the switch to electric power do to their families? In the age of the cycle rickshaw, the pullers’ families have often survived on the earnings of the wives who mostly work as domestic workers. This is because at the end of the day, the rickshaw puller spends a good bit of his earnings on booze and the family gets what is leftover. Will this surplus go down further, what with the tough loan instalments to meet?

This is not all. How do the batteries of the rickshaws get recharged? The rickshaw wallas tell me that they use the electricity connection they have at home in the slum. Kolkata is served by a private utility company, so these connections are metered and there isn’t much chance of pilferage in the first place. So the rickshaw walla is recharging batteries at the costly rate at which homeowners are charged. The auto rickshaw, on the other hand, runs on subsidised LPG.

If hanging on to an electric rickshaw is tough, getting started has a cost in addition to paying for the rickshaw. You need to pay Rs 12,000 one time for a place in the local rickshaw stand. (This is irrespective of what kind of rickshaw you ply.)

Where does this money go to? “Our association,” says one of them. It is used to celebrate various pujas when they have “picnics (choruibhati)”, which seems a euphemism. Do the local dadas get a cut out of this entry fee? The answer varies from person to person.

Mamani, the domestic worker in our house, is affected by the entry fee. Her husband, who pedals a rickshaw, cannot join the “stand” as he cannot find the entry fee and so has to make do with the casual passengers he picks up on the way. This means lower earnings.

The couple is particularly unfortunate as they have teenage twins who have had some kind of disability since birth. So they cannot start earning. If her husband could afford an electric rickshaw, he would have earned a bit more. “We have absolutely no fallback,” she observes matter-of-factly.

Subir Roy is a senior journalist and the author of Made in India: A study of emerging competitiveness (Tata Mcgraw Hill, 2005) and the forthcoming Ujjivan: The microfinance frontrunner (OUP).

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