Sunday, September 30, 2012

The cyclerickshaw-wallahs of Delhi

The cycle rickshaw is really the only sensible way to negotiate Old Delhi's narrow lanes. Especially if you have some distance to cover and don't fancy getting pushed around in the crowd.

Typical Old Delhi street, just wide enough for two rickshaws

Cycle rickshaws first appeared in Delhi in the 1940's. Before that, there were only hand-pulled rickshaws, as well as "ekka-gadis" (single horse tangas). The cycle rickshaw was considered a technical improvement over the previous hand-pulled version, where the rickshaw-wallah "ran" with his passengers and used the soles of his feet as brakes!  

Today, there are more than 700,000 cycle rickshaws in the Delhi region (according to a government study). Most are passenger rickshaws, and they have two types of seating, which you can see in the photos below:

The regular variety that seats 2 people
Rickshaws with extra seats at the back. Can take 4 people
There are also rickshaws that ferry goods rather than people. There are far fewer of these around, but you can still spot them in wholesale market areas.

Wedding cards being delivered by goods rickshaw at Chawri Bazaar
A lot of people just use the regular passenger rickshaws to carry goods.
If you can balance it all, this will work just fine!
Rickshaw pullers are typically migrants from other states - usually they are agricultural labourers or marginal farmers who can't make a living in the village. Or they are craftsmen and tradespeople whose traditional occupations no longer sustain them. They usually leave their families behind and come to the city. 

Rickshaw-pulling is an attractive option for new entrants to the city, mainly because it needs no investment. Very few rickshaw-wallahs own their rickshaws. Instead, what they do is rent them for the day from owners.  Rentals range from Rs 25 to Rs 50 per rickshaw per day. Typically, a rickshaw-wallah earns Rs 200 to Rs 250 per day, out of which rent must be paid to the owner. The owner is usually responsible for maintenance of the vehicle. To become a rickshaw-wallah, all you need is an introduction (usually by another rickshaw puller) to the owner. Deposits are not required.

My estimate of monthly earnings for a rickshaw-wallah is around Rs 5000 (about $100). After taking into account living expenses in Delhi, he probably saves Rs 1500 or Rs 2000 a month, which is usually sent to the village. 

Rickshaws are not expensive to buy. A second-hand rickshaw costs only about Rs 2000 or so. So I initially found it surprising that so very few rickshaw-wallahs own their rickshaws. When I did some reading, I found the real reason - there's a nice little extortion racket going on. The Muncipal Corporation of Delhi has issued only 90,000 rickshaw-puller licenses. So - more than 600,000 rickshaw-wallahs you see are actually illegal and are not supposed to be driving rickshaws. If they are caught, their rickshaws can be confiscated and destroyed any time. This means the only guys that can afford to own rickshaws are those who have the ability to pay off and "manage" the cops routinely. Having 600,000 unlicensed rickshaw-wallahs suits the authorities very well...a nice steady source of income! 

This also explains why the rickshaw rentals are so high, Rs 25 per day means Rs 750 per month, a very crazily high rent for something so cheap. It's because the excess rental is going into paying off the cops and to get back impounded rickshaws. What a crazy situation! 

If you want to read more about the rickshaw-wallahs and the cops and their daily struggle, you should head over to the Manushi page. Lots of stuff there, and some of it very positive. In April this year, the Supreme Court lifted the ceiling on rickshaw-wallah licenses and further ruled that rickshaws could not be impounded or destroyed. Let's wait and see if that actually improves anything.  Meanwhile, the next time you sit in a rickshaw, think about the hard life they have and tip a little extra!
Elderly rickshaw-wallah, Kinari Bazaar 


Rohit Singh said...

सच में दिल्ली कितनी गलियों में बसी है कहना मुहाल है। आपके ब्लाग को पढ़ते-पढ़ते लगा जैसे फिर से उन गलियों में विचर रहा हूं जिनमें बचपन औऱ स्कूल के दिनों में घर में आए लोगो को घुमाने के दौरान आता रहता था। अचानक लग रहा है कि खुद तो कभी नहीं घूमा....चलो एक बार फिर रुख करेंगे यहां का।
हां एक बात बताइए कि क्या ट्रैवल एजेंसी सिर्फ महिलाएं ही चलाती हैं।

Haddock said...

The most convenient mode of transport as on date.
This reminds me, I have some pictures of them that I clicked at Dwaraka but yet to upload them.

samar singh said...

Of course now you have the e-rickshaws where the driver can sleep full length with a mosquito net or passengers can charge their phones

Anonymous said...

Awesome article.