Where: New Delhi, India

July 15, 2000: This inauguration did not make the media go crazy with their cameras and flashbulbs. There were no pop stars or actors either. Delhi’s Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit was present when 20 rickshaws quietly got on to the roads. The sleek, colourful cycle-rickshaw is designed to give comfort to the driver as well as the passenger. They are easy to pedal and comfortable to ride.

Humble Rickshaw Gets a Face-lift [Illustration by Shiju George]
Humble Rickshaw Gets a Face-lift [Illustration by Shiju George]

The cycle-rickshaw has a new gear system, which reduces the amount of pedalling needed. It is wider than the existing rickshaw and has better seating arrangements. Its webbed seat and backrest reduces the jolts during the journey. It even has a lot of space under the seat for luggage.

Drivers are likely to be happy with it for two reasons. It will cost the same as the traditional rickshaw, but will last five times longer. And since it is easier to operate, drivers will be able to cover longer distances and earn more than they are doing now.

On the day of the launch, the first batch of 20 rickshaws started plying in some crowded areas of Delhi. The rickshaw has been created under the “The India Cycle Rickshaw Improvement Project.” Two organisations have been involved in the project: the Delhi-based Asian Institute of Transport Development and the new York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

Why is there a sudden interest in the humble rickshaw? Perhaps because, magnificent cars are creating too much of pollution in the world today and the rickshaw is a pollution-free option.

But why did it take so long for a well designed rickshaw to hit the road?

For that, another question needs to be asked. Who drives a cycle rickshaw in big cities like Delhi, Calcutta and Madras? Boys between the age of 15 and 25, and men even as old as 55. In India’s capital, most of the rickshaw pullers are from Bihar. Some are from Assam, Orissa, Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

They leave their homes and come to big cities in search of jobs. For those without education, a rickshaw driver’s job is often the first and last job. Till such time that their bodies can take the strain of the killer rickshaw.

Think of the old rickety rickshaw. Climbing up is a big problem, especially if the rickshaw is pulling a heavy load on bumpy roads. The vehicle is heavy and the brakes are weak. The rickshaw handle is too small and it is the only way to balance the machine, its rider, passengers and loads, if any. Accidents are very common, especially on congested roads.

The rider’s saddle is uncomfortable and there is no backrest for the puller either. Or a canopy to protect him and his passengers from heat or cold. Fatigue or tiredness, weak lungs, asthma, stiff back and joints and tuberculosis are some of the diseases that the rickshaw drivers suffer from. After they give part of the money they earn to the owners of the rickshaws, they are left with precious little.

If they continue to pull the rickshaws, it is because they have no choice. And because the rickshaw is the poor man’s vehicle, there has been no serious attempt to design effective rickshaws. They do not bring much profit to those who make them.

Some years ago, an organisation in Calcutta, called Unnayan, surveyed the state of rickshaws in India and came up with suggestions for a better design. Another rickshaw was designed by a professor of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. But there has always been a lack of people willing to make better designed rickshaws that are not expensive. Only time will tell whether this designer rickshaw has been a boon to the rickshaw drivers of India.

637 words | 6 minutes
Readability: Grade 6 (11-12 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: world news
Tags: #india, #institute, #rickshaw

You may also be interested in these:
Ratha Yatra
A Tale of Two Wonders
Glimpses from Gandhi's Life
The Chief Minister and the Butterfly
Satyajit Ray