Mumbai Mirror of Dec 11 reported the Calcutta hackney carriage amendment bill which has ushered in the end of the hand – pulled rickshaw. The news set me thinking. As a school going child in cochin, I had used this mode of transport before it gave way to the cycle rickshaw. The rickshaw wallah’s name was Augustine, and he took my brother and me to the primary school, and brought us back home. Sometimes he used to run with us in the rickshaw to see us laugh and clap our hands in delight. As I write this piece, I am trying hard to rewind in order to capture our feelings for Augustine chetan, as we called him. I don’t remember feeling guilty about being handpulled by him( he was not young) or feeling sorry for him. We took that occupation for granted, just as he did, and I don’t think I am mistaken in saying that he enjoyed it.
A couple of months back, my husband and I went to the Red Fort, Delhi. The minute we entered the old city, we were literally chased by a battery of cycle rickshaw wallahs vying with each other to take us around Chandini Chowk. I shuddered at the thought of using this inhuman mode of transport but my husband pointed out that our refusal to avail ourselves of that service on grounds of inhumanity was not an act of kindness. It was their livelihood. I saw the logic in what he said and climbed into the rickshaw. I did not enjoy the ride one bit – guilt was gnawing at me and I hardly saw where he was taking us.
A couple of weeks back, we went to the Ajanta caves. Seeing me struggle at the first steep climb, the men who carried the dolly'(palanquin) appeared. The dolly is a chair carried on poles on the shoulders of four men and is used to transport people uphill. I was horrified at the thought of making use of that cruel innovation and vehemently refused it. The men noticed that I was puffing and panting and saw a potential client in me. They followed me some distance. After the first steep climb, it was easier. Seeing my determination not to engage the dolly, they gave an ultimatum and the last discounted rate. My husband told them that our issue was with making them do this inhuman task. Pat came the reply – if all tourist felt that way, how would we live?
Now to get back to West Bengal, the CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is quoted as saying that ‘When I go to Delhi, Mumbai or abroad, I am asked how long Calcutta will have hand-pulled rickshaws. This is an inhuman practice…it is a shame on our city and the state as well’. Strange that it took the Marxist CM several trips to Delhi and elsewhere to get his eyes opened to the inhumanity of the practice. And his concern appears to be the image of the state he governs rather than the welfare of the pullers; all the more reason why one should be skeptical about the promises of rehabilitation made to these pullers. It is easy to impose a ban on or abolish a practice that provides a means of livelihood to people. It just takes a stroke of the pen. Ideally, with another stroke of the same pen, an alternative source of living must be provided. No time should be lost. Whether our government machinery, mired in inefficiency and red tapism, will implement a rehabilitation scheme waits to be seen. Depriving people of an occupation that afforded them a dignified existence in order to save the image of the state is many times more inhuman than the practice itself.
It is time India stopped trying to blindly accept the standards of developed countries with less than half our population. While the occupation of a rickshaw puller or a domestic help or a bar dancer is not the most envied of occupations, can the government arbitrarily abolish these without having in place a system to rehabilitate them immediately? Does the government have the right to deprive the citizens of a livelihood? Disturb these people who live their lives as best as they can only if the government is capable of taking care of every person thrown out of employment when it gets these occasional seizures of conscience. With our huge population, the country has found its own way of survival, however precarious it may be. Precisely on account of its precarious nature, the government should take care not to mindlessly tip the balance.
Tourists who come to Calcutta may now heave a sigh of relief to see the hand pulled rickshaws off the road. Dominic Lapierre, who authored the City of Joy can triumphantly give himself a pat the back for triggering off a debate which after many years culminated in the abolition of Calcutta's hackney carriage. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya may now hold up his head in pride at having abolished a practice that brought shame to Calcutta. But, pray, tell me, who is the state answerable to other than its own people?
Do I sound like a champion of inhuman occupations? While it is true that I’d rather be a hammer than a nail, believe me, it’s no fun being a hammer. Honest.