Rickshaws to the rescue

Published: Sunday 15 June 1997

WHEN the Delhi Rickshaw Chalak-Malik Sangharsh Morcha (rickshaw drivers and owners agitation committee) staged a demonstration in front of the office of the Municipal corporation of Delhi (MCD) on May 19, it was drawing attention to the harassment its members were facing at the hands of the authorities. Rickshaws are repeatedly fined, towed off by the MCD and the police, and rickshaw owners have at times even to grease palms to slip through police dragnets.

What is surprising is that rickshaws are non-motorised transport, emission-free and eco-friendly. Today, they are being introduced in cities in the indstrialised North. Unfortunately in India it is becoming increasingly clear that city planners have forgotten to make a provision for them.

Wrong signals have been sent out repeatedly by the authorities to discourage non-motorised transport without showing any concern for the increase in toxic pollutants in the air from smoke-belching vehicles. As a result, cycle rickshaws which have been around on Indian roads since the 1930s, are facing extinction as the odds are heavily tipped in favour of transport like three-wheelers. Studies conducted by the Indian Institute of Petroleum have indicated that three wheelers along with two-wheelers are responsible for more than 70 per cent of the hydrocarbon emissions in India.

The state-sponsored crackdown on cycle rickshaws is complemented by a middle class disdain for this mode of travel. A lack of infrastructure and management support systems has deprived them of their traditional driving space. This space is being taken up by the auto-rickshaws which are increasing at the rate of 15 per cent per annum. These are creating imbalances in the composition of the traffic mainly in cities and small towns, with a drastic impact on the air quality profile. As a result, even smaller towns like Agartala, Kanpur, Lucknow, Patna, Agra and the like where scooter and car populations are relatively small as compared to the metropolitan cities have seen a sudden decline in air quality.

Ironically, what has been rejected as an unnecessary relic from the past, has been grabbed up eagerly by their former colonial masters. Recently, the media was abuzz with the news that Indian cycle rickshaws have hit the roads in the town of Oxford in Britain and that the local authorities there have enacted bylaws permitting rickshaws to operate between fixed points. The cycle rickshaws are also being marketed in the US and Europe as green taxis and pedicabs.

There is also an immense scope for upgradation in the design of the cycle rickshaw to make it lightweight and easy to pull - thus relieving the puller of the extra drag. Detractors should note that in Oxford, more than 40 per cent of the rickshaw pullers are women. With upgraded gears, hydraulic brakes rear end differential, comfortable seats and halogen lights, the cycle rickshaw which today covers a distance of 60 km per day on an average, can emerge as one of the most efficient non-motorised means of transport in the cities. Despite indigenous initiatives to improve the technology, the upgraded rickshaw is not available commercially - thanks to the complete indifference of state authorities. The authorities are poised to clamp 15 per cent excise tax on it if it is produced for commercial use. This has pushed the manufacture of cycle rickshaws to the informal sector where private initiative for improvement cannot be expected.

Improved prototypes can never hit the roads unless favourable conditions are created for its wider acceptance. In the 1970s and 1980s there were two attempts by Canadian, British and Indian NGOS to improve their design and technology. But industry did not show any interest. Recently, Nimbarkar Agricultural Research Institute in Maharashtra drew media attention when they developed the electric cycle rickshaw. Even this may get pushed into oblivion if the public attitude towards cycle rickshaws does not change.

Since rickshaws are on the hit list of the city planner, welfare plans for rickshaw pullers are accorded the lowest priority, if at all. Though some states have fixed the minimum fare for rickshaws, sharing system in autos undercuts the rickshaw fare and lures away the commuters. Rickshaw pullers have to fend for themselves as there are no special health schemes or social security schemes for them. Apart from being an environment friendly vehicle, the rickshaw is also a source of employment for the urban poor.

Policy pundits cannot ignore the importance of promoting non-motorised transports in the urban centres. Or may be promises made occasionally by the Delhi government to set up cycle tracks indicates that much as they may want, the importance of this segment of traffic cannot be ignored. Even today, 40 per cent of the work trips in the range of two to eight km in Delhi, is catered to by bicycles.

When the left front government in its drive to clean up Calcutta pulled the cycle rickshaws off the road and confined them to an immensely restricted zone, they were only interested in creating more road space for the motorised traffic - another sop to the urban middle class. Even in Delhi, cycle rickshaws can ply only in a few localities. This only indicates that city planners may not have a green agenda at all.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.