In Kolkata, the ‘Last Days of the Rickshaw’?

Travel Blog  •  Michael Yessis  •  04.03.08 | 4:08 PM ET

Calvin Trillin’s look at the fate of hand-pulled rickshaws in Kolkata (aka Calcutta) leads a terrific package on the subject in National Geographic. “To Westerners, the conveyance most identified with Kolkata is not its modern subway—a facility whose spacious stations have art on the walls and cricket matches on television monitors—but the hand-pulled rickshaw,” he writes. “Stories and films celebrate a primitive-looking cart with high wooden wheels, pulled by someone who looks close to needing the succor of Mother Teresa.”

He continues:

For years the government has been talking about eliminating hand-pulled rickshaws on what it calls humanitarian grounds—principally on the ground that, as the mayor of Kolkata has often said, it is offensive to see “one man sweating and straining to pull another man.” But these days politicians also lament the impact of 6,000 hand-pulled rickshaws on a modern city’s traffic and, particularly, on its image. “Westerners try to associate beggars and these rickshaws with the Calcutta landscape, but this is not what Calcutta stands for,” the chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, said in a press conference in 2006. “Our city stands for prosperity and development.” The chief minister—the equivalent of a state governor—went on to announce that hand-pulled rickshaws soon would be banned from the streets of Kolkata.

As expected, National Geographic has excellent images to go with the piece. Photographer Ami Vitale put together a photo gallery and a slide show, and she sat for an interview about her work.

Related on World Hum:
* ‘Human Horses’ Defy Calcutta Rickshaw Ban

Photo by subzi73, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Tags: Rickshaws, Asia, India

5 Comments for In Kolkata, the ‘Last Days of the Rickshaw’?

Anish 04.03.08 | 7:05 PM ET

Very interesting article.  While it may be offensive to be pulled by a fellow human being, the rickshaw gives these men work and allows them to feed their family. Without the rickshaw they would not likely have work as they probably have a very basic education. These rickshaws will be converted to bicycle rickshaws just like elsewhere in northern India.

P.W. 04.03.08 | 9:05 PM ET

Everything we own or use comes to us via the sweat and hard work of others, from the clothes we wear to the houses we live in to the roads we drive upon. Perhaps rickshaws make us uncomfortable because we see, without filter, how much our quality of life depends on the very punishing work of laborors. I don’t think that a person pulling a rickshaw is any different from a person laying bricks in the hot sun.

Jarrett 04.05.08 | 3:41 AM ET

Indian planners that I’ve talked with worry a lot about the diversity of speeds among the vehicles on the street.  This tension among vehicles with different speeds is the source of much of the endless jostling and honking of Indian traffic.  I suspect that behind the noble sentiments about human dignity is a desire to eliminate the only vehicle on the road that occupies most of a lane-width but moves at the top speed of a pedestrian. 

(Slow bicycles are a little more tolerable, from this point of view, because they take less width, and in any case bicycles are too numerous to be banned even if they wanted to.  In fact, it says something about the impenetrability of India that we haven’t seen more communication between western urban bicycle activists and the downtrodden men who ride old bicycles in the tense and shifting margins of Indian major streets, being honked at from all sides.)

That’s not to judge the decision one way or the other, but just to point out a key dimension to it that Trillin may have missed.

Ling 04.05.08 | 8:39 AM ET

I don’t have much to say about whether or not the rickshaw should be banned, but there’s one thing I do know - Whatever promises will be made to these rickshaw pullers to compensate for their loss will be broken, and they’ll be left in the lurch. And National Geographic won’t be on hand to documenttheir plight.

mike willis 04.08.08 | 7:28 AM ET

Banning these rickshaw,s is i,m afraid just another sign of the so called (rising middle class indian)who want,s to embrace many western way,s and think,s the sight of these rickshaw,s is demeaning to their country,on the other hand paying their “servant,s"less than a dollar a day behind closed door,s is a tradition they will want to maintain.

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