Saturday, April 1

Humble hand-pulled rickshaws turn saviour in Kolkata’s containment zones

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Meena Poddar, who has stayed in Posta all her life, always thought hand-pulled rickshaws were irrelevant in modern Kolkata. But when her mother suffered from food poisoning last week, she struggled to rush her to hospital as cabs were not available. A hand-pulled rickshaw came to her rescue.

Anil Singh, who had stopped boarding the hand-pulled rickshaw several years ago, has been using it to ferry LPG cylinders after the delivery boy refused to carry it to his residence on Madan Mohan Burman Street, a containment zone.

The humble hand-pulled rickshaw, a form of transport on its last legs and sometimes referred to as a symbol of India’s colonial past, has suddenly become a saviour for locked-down Kolkata as the city gropes for last-mile transport solutions in response to an unforeseen emergency situation.

Bodies glistening with sweat in the wilting heat, the frail and tanned rickshaw pullers are taking the sick to hospitals, hauling LPG cylinders and ferrying essential supplies to households. In many pockets of the city, where several cases of Covid-19 have been detected, hand-pulled rickshaws are now the only mode of transport.

“I realised the importance of these rickshaws when my mother fell ill. I didn’t know how to take her to the hospital as cabs are not plying. I thought the rickshaw puller would charge double the fare, but I was surprised when he not only asked for the actual fare but also offered to wait outside till a doctor checked my mother,” said Poddar.

A cop in central Kolkata said rickshaws have come to their rescue too as people were dialling local police stations requesting to ferry a sick person to hospital or fetch an LPG cylinder. Sniffing business opportunity in these times of hardship, the rickshaw pullers reach the markets in central and north central parts of the city early in the morning, their faces wrapped in masks. “People are now purchasing in bulk due to lockdown. They cannot carry so much themselves and use our services. We are also earning some money,” said Raju Paswan, a rickshaw puller outside Tiretta Market in central Kolkata.

“I have helped ferry so many people to clinics and hospitals for food poisoning and other ailments. Even though it’s my job, people have thanked me profusely and even tipped me, which shows how helpless they are in the current situation,” said Mohammad Islam, a rickshaw puller in Bowbazar.

Close to 1,000 hand-pulled rickshaws still ply in pockets of central and north Central Kolkata even though issue of licences stopped in the mid-1990s. In the past few decades, there have been cries of banning this “inhuman” mode of transport. But every time the city’s streets are flooded during monsoons, or a natural or man-made calamity strikes, this non-mechanised and non-polluting mode of transport comes to the rescue of citizens.

“These rickshaw pullers are also frontline Covid warriors because they are ferrying the sick and entering dangerous zones to deliver groceries and LPG cylinders when others are refusing to do it. We request the police to let them ply as they are a lifeline in the time of pandemic. When this phase is over, the government must think about providing better working conditions to the rickshaw-pullers,” said Mukhtar Ali of the All Bengal Rickshaw Union.

Source: Times of India

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