Letter to the CALCUTTA TELEGRAPH
30 September, 2005
The decision to ban handpulled rickshaws is a hasty and ill-advised one. Removal of such vehicles alone will notmake the city a nouveau-techno hub, as is the stated goal of the CM. Foreign investors don't shy away from Kolkata because of a few rickshaws; they disdain it because of poor infrastructure, gagging pollution and a history of unruly labour relations.
Has anyone thought beyond their image-conscious modernization campaigns to ask the pullers themselves how they feel? They don't want to give up their livelihood and don't wish to exchange their carts for a noisy, polluting auto that will only add to the traffic and smog. What about their feelings? They are the ones to be most immediately affected. The government claims to be protecting them while ignoring the protests of the pullers, who don't want this type of 'protection.'
Instead of decrying the inhuman conditions and getting rid of it all together, why not organize and standardize the business, as they did railway porters? Why not unionize them and guarantee them certain standards of treatment and fair minimum rates for the very real service they provide? It's been done with virtually all other professions, with a fair degree of success, and would empower the pullers.
A common reformer argument is that the rickshaw pullers are abused and in ill health. Some of the same NGOs and liberals who want to do away with them, I will warrant, are the same folks who are all for organizing, unionizing and empowering female sex workers. These are laudable efforts, so ask yourself: Why is it more acceptable, to these activists, for a woman to sell her body and services in a dangerous and unhealthy profession than for a man to do honest traditional work pulling a load? In organizing sex workers, activists educate them about health issues and make sure they have access to needed remedies and preventatives. They also inform them of their rights. Why can't we do the same for the rickshaw men?
Another common objection is that there is something innately inhumane about one human toting another, regardless of conditions or weight. Here in Nepal, porters are regularly seen carrying on their bent backs things easily 3 times their own weight. One man will port a fullsized refrigerator using only his headstraps and back. It is their living and they are glad to do it, and in this terrain with so few vehicles, there are scarce alternatives. Why is it less humane for a man to pull a human in a cart, standing upright, than for these gents, or for railway porters, to carry such (inanimate) loads?
I love Kolkata and spent 5 weeks there. During that time I used the invaluable services of the pullers several times, especially in monsoon. I think they provide a honourable service and should be treated that way - not done away with as though they are a disgrace.
Kolkata should become a more modern city, but not at the expense of the least of its citizens, nor of its traditions. Regulate and empower the pullers, and let one of the city's unique features remain, and all the better for it.
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