I came to Birlapur, a small industrial jute mill town near Kolkata as a child in 1946 at the age of six for schooling. But my regular schooling started in 1950 from class VI at Birlapur Vidyalaya. Whenever my grandfather took me to Kolkata, we used to have a difference of opinion on one thing whether we should ride a man pulled rickshaw. While my grandfather took it as a normal transpiration means, I thought its use as shameful act- a human riding human. After almost 50 years of independence, only few days back the United Front government of West Bengal could get the state assembly pass ‘The Calcutta Hackney-Carriage (Amendment) Bill, 2006′, to phase out hand pulled rickshaws. The rickshaws will become part of the history of the city. The bill, when enacted, will undo what Chinese traders did for Kolkata’s transportation in the late 19th century by introducing this eco-friendly transport. That was years after Shimla boasted of it in 1888. And now after Bengal’s Marxist lawmakers handed the death sentence to it, the screen travails will fortunately assure the carriage at least lives in reel life.
Be it films, Parineeta, Do Bigha Zameen, Amar Prem or City of Joy or be it filmmakers, Satyajit Ray or Rituparno Ghosh, the hand-pulled rickshaw represented Kolkata in its elements.
Kolkatans have different views. ”It may be seen as a form of slavery, but the hand pulled rickshaws should be preserved as part of our heritage. There can be certain routes on which they can still be allowed to ply.” ”But it is one of the non-polluting vehicles the city must ever have.” ”When there is flooding in Kolkata, hand pulled rickshaws are the only solace. They are symbolic to the City of Joy.” “In a city sparsed with narrow lanes and bylanes, rickshaw-wallahs meet a very important transport need. They are Kolkatans’ friends through thick and thin. Come floods or riots, the rickshaw puller is only a hail away. Ever heard of a rickshaw-puller betraying his passengers’ trust.” “Every great city has an USP. Kolkata’s USP – whether we like it or not – is the rickshaw. No other great city can boast of it.”
While piloting the bill, CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee reiterated what he had said earlier. ”We must agree on one point that in the 21st century it is not right for a human being to pull another human being. Wherever I go, be it Delhi, Mumbai or abroad, people ask me how long Kolkata will have hand-pulled rickshaws? This is a shame for our city. We should have done this much earlier.” The CM promised rehabilitation for rickshaw-pullers. Some crude facts are:
Most of the rickshaw-pullers were from Bihar who leave their families at home and spend 10 months of the year in Kolkata
24,000 rickshaw-wallahs were enrolled with the All Bengal (hand-pulled) Rickshaw Union
Only Rs 30 was all a rickshaw-wallah would need to renew his license.
The number of licensed hand-pulled rickshaws was 5,937.
Most probably all these rikhshapullers, particularly the younger ones, will try to do something else and the elders may move to their villages. Perhaps the worst affected will be the union leaders who used to live on the collections from the poormen to support their causes.
I don’t think I can forget the memory of aged, thin rikhshawallas carrying the excessively obese ladies and gentlemen of business community in Burrabazar that I hated. Most of those families, as such have now switched over to cars.