Fair business

Published: Tuesday 30 June 2009

Why the market has place for the rickshaw

a little after Slumdog Millionaire was feted at the Oscars, Bihar's chief minister Nitish Kumar decided the film deserved a watch. He made his way to a cinema hall near his residence in a cycle rickshaw. Kumar's choice of transport had much to do with the film he was going to watch. What better way to identify with a film celebrating the riff-raff than take the most run down mode of transport?

Irfan Alam, a young entrepreneur from Kumar's state, would have identified with the chief minister's choice of transport. But not his patronizing motives. Alam is no NGO activist. He is a graduate of one of India's blue-chip business schools who believes in going by the market. But his is not a run-of-the-mill foray into the market Alam has developed a sophisticated business model around the cycle rickshaw (see Business on pedalsr).

He has gone against the grain. For long rickshaw pullers have been symbols of India's squalor and poverty. If ever there was a labour intensive job, this is it. Rickshaws battle for road space in some of the most lethal traffic anywhere in the world. The cops are hostile and the passengers not always kind.

So as India is pulled into modernity, rickshaws are deemed a relic. Politicians like Nitish Kumar do sometimes choose the rickety vehicle to make a show of their ties with the common people. But on the whole, the rickshaw does not figure in their books. Some years ago the Delhi government banished them from the old city and Kolkata's communist rulers decided that the proletariat who pulled rickshaws had no place in their scheme of things.

But Alam and a few others have shown that rickshaws need not be rickety. They have demonstrated that markets are not ipso facto for some modes of transport and against few others. The nature of the journey does play a role in the choice of vehicles, that is if we are given the choice (see Let the journey choose the vehicle). A rickshaw is extremely useful between short distances. Why drive to the local market or a nearby cinema hall if you can take a comfortable ride in a rickshaw?

Designing nifty rickshaws is one aspect of making the ride comfortable. They should not be bullied on road. Providing road space is not just a matter of individual enterprise. Will city governments take a cue from entrepreneurs like Irfan Alam?

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