Hand-pulled rickshaws have existed in Kolkata, India for over one hundred years. Kolkata is the only city in the world that continues to house a sizeable fleet of human-powered rickshaws. In 2006, the state government of West Bengal banned the rickshaws as inappropriate anachronisms. In an interview, a senior government official stated the following as grounds for removal of the rickshaws, “Since the 1980s humanitarian associations have been questioning the issue of one man pulling another and saying that, when we are going into the 21st century one man pulling another is not only inhumane, but does not depict a good picture of society. [Furthermore], the traffic department found it inconvenient […] the state is trying to introduce high speed moving vehicles.” Since this ban, however, many rickshaw pullers have continued their work and evaded enforcement.
As part of my PhD dissertation I explored the work and lives of rickshaw pullers or wallahs. Often, images of rickshaw pulling convey a world which dehumanizes the rickshaw wallahs and relegates them to the depths of impoverishment and squalor. While the living and working conditions of the rickshaw wallahs are certainly deplorable, they still consider themselves better off among the laborers who constitute a majority of the city’s informal work force. For example, an older rickshaw wallah related to me, “I used to work as a coolie, but there was no profit so rickshaw pulling was my only option. There were older guys here, they told me, why don’t you pull a rickshaw—you can earn so much more and feed your family.”
Media representations of the rickshaws conceal the myriad ways in which the rickshaw wallahs derive meaning from their livelihoods and afford themselves upward mobility. Moreover, media representations of rickshaw wallahs offer not just an inaccurate translation of the lifeworlds of the rickshaw pullers, but also detract from how a profession like rickshaw pulling contributes to place- and meaning-making for the residents and the city of Kolkata. The following images and quotes from my research offer an alternative narrative to the world of rickshaw pulling in the city of Kolkata.
(All photos by author.)
Rickshaw wallah: “[I am] well known here so they allow me to sleep free of charge.”
Rickshaw owner: “They are around here, so there are no robberies. They are our security”
Kolkata resident: “Rickshaw wallahs sleep in their rickshaws, taxi drivers lock their vehicles and go away from there. Only the rickshaw wallah is always with his vehicle so he answers the call of help late at night.
Kolkata resident: “They sleep in our building at night. Many years ago, there was a fire in the building. They saw the fire start in an electric box and alerted everyone.”
Rickshaw wallah: “In emergencies in the middle of the night, when there are no taxis or autos people wake me up from sleep and ask me to take them to the hospital.”
Kolkata resident: “[For] single ladies, [traveling] alone, taxis will take them anywhere. Rickshaws are dependable, [they are] good guys, [they will] take you through the lanes but bring you home without a problem. We believe them and hope they are never removed from [Kolkata] Calcutta.
Rickshaw wallah: “All types of people, women, sick, old, schoolkids; we take people to markets, we take everyone, we don’t leave anyone.”
Kolkata resident: “The markets are in the interior from the main roads. For people to get to the main roads they need rickshaws.”
Rickshaw wallah: “During floods only we will go, we make hospital trips, we take school kids, office-goers, all these people will have trouble.”
Kolkata resident: “When it floods, only he’ll take you through high water and even during bandhs (strikes).
Rickshaw wallah: “Besides during floods, nothing else moves, all motorized transport comes to a halt, we help people even get across the streets during floods, only we continue to move.”
City official: “They are local guardians of schoolchildren, they pick up the kids, drop them off to school and they are there to pick them up from school right on time too and drop them back home to their parents.”
Rickshaw wallah: “Parents will only give their kids into a rickshaw wallah’s care to drop off and pick up from school or to take anywhere else. They won’t leave their kids with a taxi man.”
Kolkata resident: “Parents leave their little children in the pullers’ care to take them to school and pick them up. He looks after them. Parents are not doing this work, a poor man is doing it.”
Rickshaw owner: “These are pollution free.”
Rickshaw wallah: “There is no smoke from this, it does not take mobile oil, we burn our blood and run this, there is no pollution.”
Kolkata resident: “[It is] pollution free and people friendly.”