Last Days of the Rickshaw

Kolkata is bent on burnishing its modern image—and banning a potent symbol of India’s colonial past.

This story appears in the April 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The strategy of drivers in Kolkata—drivers of private cars and taxis and buses and the enclosed three-wheel scooters used as jitneys and even pedicabs—is simple: Forge ahead while honking. There are no stop signs to speak of. To a visitor, the signs that say, in large block letters, OBEY TRAFFIC RULES come across as a bit of black humor. During a recent stay in Kolkata, the method I devised for crossing major thoroughfares was to wait until I could attach myself to more pedestrians than I figured a taxi was willing to knock down. In the narrow side streets known as the lanes, loud honking is the signal that a taxi or even a small truck is about to round the corner and come barreling down a space not meant for anything wider than a bicycle. But occasionally, during a brief lull in the honking, I’d hear the tinkling of a bell behind me. An American who has watched too many Hallmark Christmas specials might turn around half expecting to see a pair of draft horses pulling a sleigh through snowy woods. But what came into view was a rickshaw. Instead of being pulled by a horse, it was being pulled by a man—usually a skinny, bedraggled, barefoot man who didn’t look quite up to the task. Hooked around his finger was a single bell that he shook continuously, producing what is surely the most benign sound to emanate from any vehicle in Kolkata.

Among the great cities of the world, Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal and the home of nearly 15 million people, is often mentioned as the only one that still has a large fleet of hand-pulled rickshaws. As it happens, that is not a distinction treasured by the governing authorities. Why? It’s tempting, of course, to blame Mother Teresa. A politician in Kolkata told me that the city is known for the three m’s: Marxism, mishti, and Mother Teresa. (West Bengal has had a government dominated by the Communist Party for 30 years. Mishti is a sweetened yogurt that Kolkatans love, though they’re also partial to a sweet called rossogolla.) There is no doubt that the international attention given to Mother Teresa’s work among the wretched and the dying firmly linked Kolkata in the Western mind with squalor—no matter how often Kolkatans point out that Mumbai, for example, has more extensive slums, and that no other city in India can match the richness of Kolkata’s intellectual and cultural life.

The most loyal booster of Kolkata would acknowledge that the city has had some genuinely trying times in the 60 years since India became independent, starting well before the emergence of Mother Teresa. The partition that accompanied independence meant that, without substantial help from the central government, Kolkata had to absorb several million refugees from what became East Pakistan. There were times in the 1970s and ’80s when it seemed Kolkata would never recover from the trauma of those refugees, followed by another wave of refugees who came during the war that turned East Pakistan into Bangladesh. Those were years marked by power outages and labor unrest and the flight of industry and the breathtaking violence unleashed by the Naxalite movement, which began with peasants demanding land redistribution in rural West Bengal and was transformed by college students into urban guerrilla warfare. In 1985 India’s own prime minister, then Rajiv Gandhi, called Kolkata “a dying city.”

There are still a lot of people sleeping on the streets in Kolkata, but there have been great changes in recent years. After decades of concentrating on its base among the rural poor and disdaining outside investment, the Communist Party of West Bengal has fiercely embraced capitalism and modernity. Although the government’s symbols remain what might be expected from a party that still has a politburo—street-name changes have resulted in an American consulate with the address 5/1 Ho Chi Minh Road—the city regularly courts Western delegations looking for investment opportunities. Kolkata now has modern shopping malls and modern overpasses. Walking around the city recently for a week or so, often as the only Westerner in sight, I was approached by precisely two beggars.

Still, the image of any city has a half-life of many years. (So does its name, officially changed in 2001 from Calcutta to Kolkata, which is closer to what the word sounds like in Bengali. Conversing in English, I never heard anyone call the city anything but Calcutta.) 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. 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. 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.

Rickshaws are not there to haul around tourists. (Actually, I saw almost no tourists in Kolkata, apart from the young backpackers on Sudder Street, in what used to be a red-light district and is now said to be the single place in the city where the services a rickshaw wallah offers may include providing female company to a gentleman for the evening.) It’s the people in the lanes who most regularly use rickshaws—not the poor but people who are just a notch above the poor. They are people who tend to travel short distances, through lanes that are sometimes inaccessible to even the most daring taxi driver. An older woman with marketing to do, for instance, can arrive in a rickshaw, have the rickshaw wallah wait until she comes back from various stalls to load her purchases, and then be taken home. People in the lanes use rickshaws as a 24-hour ambulance service. Proprietors of cafés or corner stores send rickshaws to collect their supplies. (One morning I saw a rickshaw wallah take on a load of live chickens—tied in pairs by the feet so they could be draped over the shafts and the folded back canopy and even the axle. By the time he trotted off, he was carrying about a hundred upside-down chickens.) The rickshaw pullers told me their steadiest customers are schoolchildren. Middle-class families contract with a puller to take a child to school and pick him up; the puller essentially becomes a family retainer.

From June to September Kolkata can get torrential rains, and its drainage system doesn’t need torrential rain to begin backing up. Residents who favor a touch of hyperbole say that in Kolkata “if a stray cat pees, there’s a flood.” During my stay it once rained for about 48 hours. Entire neighborhoods couldn’t be reached by motorized vehicles, and the newspapers showed pictures of rickshaws being pulled through water that was up to the pullers’ waists. When it’s raining, the normal customer base for rickshaw wallahs expands greatly, as does the price of a journey. A writer in Kolkata told me, “When it rains, even the governor takes rickshaws.”

While I was in Kolkata, a magazine called India Today published its annual ranking of Indian states, according to such measurements as prosperity and infrastructure. Among India’s 20 largest states, Bihar finished dead last, as it has for four of the past five years. Bihar, a couple hundred miles north of Kolkata, is where the vast majority of rickshaw wallahs come from. Once in Kolkata, they sleep on the street or in their rickshaws or in a dera—a combination garage and repair shop and dormitory managed by someone called a sardar. For sleeping privileges in a dera, pullers pay 100 rupees (about $2.50) a month, which sounds like a pretty good deal until you’ve visited a dera. They gross between 100 and 150 rupees a day, out of which they have to pay 20 rupees for the use of the rickshaw and an occasional 75 or more for a payoff if a policeman stops them for, say, crossing a street where rickshaws are prohibited. A 2003 study found that rickshaw wallahs are near the bottom of Kolkata occupations in income, doing better than only the ragpickers and the beggars. For someone without land or education, that still beats trying to make a living in Bihar.

There are people in Kolkata, particularly educated and politically aware people, who will not ride in a rickshaw, because they are offended by the idea of being pulled by another human being or because they consider it not the sort of thing people of their station do or because they regard the hand-pulled rickshaw as a relic of colonialism. Ironically, some of those people are not enthusiastic about banning rickshaws. The editor of the editorial pages of Kolkata’s Telegraph—Rudrangshu Mukherjee, a former academic who still writes history books—told me, for instance, that he sees humanitarian considerations as coming down on the side of keeping hand-pulled rickshaws on the road. “I refuse to be carried by another human being myself,” he said, “but I question whether we have the right to take away their livelihood.” Rickshaw supporters point out that when it comes to demeaning occupations, rickshaw wallahs are hardly unique in Kolkata.

When I asked one rickshaw wallah if he thought the government’s plan to rid the city of rickshaws was based on a genuine interest in his welfare, he smiled, with a quick shake of his head—a gesture I interpreted to mean, “If you are so naive as to ask such a question, I will answer it, but it is not worth wasting words on.” Some rickshaw wallahs I met were resigned to the imminent end of their livelihood and pin their hopes on being offered something in its place. As migrant workers, they don’t have the political clout enjoyed by, say, Kolkata’s sidewalk hawkers, who, after supposedly being scaled back at the beginning of the modernization drive, still clog the sidewalks, selling absolutely everything—or, as I found during the 48 hours of rain, absolutely everything but umbrellas. “The government was the government of the poor people,” one sardar told me. “Now they shake hands with the capitalists and try to get rid of poor people.”

But others in Kolkata believe that rickshaws will simply be confined more strictly to certain neighborhoods, out of the view of World Bank traffic consultants and California investment delegations—or that they will be allowed to die out naturally as they’re supplanted by more modern conveyances. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, after all, is not the first high West Bengal official to say that rickshaws would be off the streets of Kolkata in a matter of months. Similar statements have been made as far back as 1976. The ban decreed by Bhattacharjee has been delayed by a court case and by a widely held belief that some retraining or social security settlement ought to be offered to rickshaw drivers. It may also have been delayed by a quiet reluctance to give up something that has been part of the fabric of the city for more than a century. Kolkata, a resident told me, “has difficulty letting go.” One day a city official handed me a report from the municipal government laying out options for how rickshaw wallahs might be rehabilitated.

“Which option has been chosen?” I asked, noting that the report was dated almost exactly a year before my visit.

“That hasn’t been decided,” he said.

“When will it be decided?”

“That hasn’t been decided,” he said.