“Nai bhaiyaa! Itna nai denge.“ (No we won’t give this much).
How many times have we had arguments on these lines? Be it with a shopkeeper, a vegetable vendor, auto wala or a cycle rickshaw wala. Countless times. Especially, we in India cannot deny that we have done this at some point of our lives. And it’s not like it’s a middle class phenomena. It’s like it runs in our DNA and was coded into our genomes way before we were born, while still in our mother’s womb. And for what? A mere 2 or 5 bucks. While at the same time we do not mind spending our ‘hard earned’ money on expensive branded merchandise that we might hardly even ever use or on outings or dinner. Well, the other side of this bargaining also has something else coded into their DNA. They know very well this is going to come. So what do they do? They raise the price to a ridiculous amount and after bargaining bring it down to where it is supposed to meet and satisfy both parties. It’s hard to know sometimes where the cycle starts – is it because the customers bargain no matter what, that the other end raises the price or is it because the selling party have ridiculous pricing that the customer feels the urge to bargain. Well it’s a thought for another day and I am going way off the topic.
So let me come back to the point I was going to make initially. Let me take the case of our cycle rickshaw peddler’s community for today. Sometimes it’s just hard for me to fathom that they still exist. I have been raised in Allahabad where cycle rickshaw is one of the main modes of transport ergo a common sight on the roads. I remember countless journeys I have had on this man powered transport system. However that was around 10 years ago, before my family shifted back to Kerala. Shifting again to north I was a little surprised that we still have our rickshaw peddlers. For some reason I had thought they might have vanished. Or maybe I never thought about it much.
So recently I have been analyzing (sort of) the life of these rickshaw pullers and how they fit into our community. If say, we take a day in their lives, it would be pretty much routine. Most of them start their day at around 9 and are done by 5. Some who start late might even extend up to 9 at night. These are mostly people who have two jobs. Majority are just rickshaw peddlers and not owners. They hire the rickshaw from the rickshaw owner on daily basis at Rs 30-40 rent.
There are no guarantees how the day will be. Some days the business is average while some days are not so good. There are a number of factors involved in this, top 2 being – (i) location and demand (ii) alternative commutes available.
Combined these can result in drastically different earning curves. In Patna for example, where I am currently working, most areas have shared auto which are cheaper compared to the rickshaw. Buses also ply, they are cheaper but way too crowded. There are the long rides though, with distances as much as 7-10 km. These are areas where your normal share autos do not cover, as are interiors, crowded spaces or very small distances. Sometimes they are just right in front of you and you just choose to ride with them. On an average day, a rickshaw wala earns Rs 250-400 per day. In contrast if you change the city itself, this pattern will change. Delhi is one place where you won’t find rickshaws everywhere. Here there is no share auto, only your regular autos and Ubers and Olas and private vehicles trying to outnumber each other. There is also the METRO which is the easiest and most convenient mode for long distance. One factor could be these vehicles and another could be the ban that had tried to wipe away the cycle rickshaws from Delhi. However, they survived and they thrive in areas mostly inaccessible to the other vehicles or areas where they cost cheaper than the minimum rates of auto and cabs. When I reach Huda City Center in Gurgaon I usually take one of the cycle rickshaws that stand on the side of the crossing to reach my office, simply because it’s cheaper and I won’t have to wait for a cab or give directions.
The individual work lives of these rickshaw walas are more or less the same. During afternoon you can see some of them sleeping on a trolley or their own rickshaw with their faces covered with a piece of cloth, under a shady tree or anywhere the direct sun rays do not hit them. That’s where I met *Raju. This is what happened-
He was just preparing for his afternoon nap. He had recently joined the rickshaw business. Earlier he used to work in a factory but after losing his job started peddling rickshaw. He gets his rickshaw from a workshop nearby, around 2 km from where he stands now. He has a family with two kids. A boy who is in a private school and a girl who studies in a Govt. school. This source is just meager and suffices their daily needs and his boy’s tuition. What about his lunch I ask. He eats at home before starting the day and will now go home and have dinner. I was surprised but most of these rickshaw walas have only two meals a day.
I met *Birju at Patna junction.
Its afternoon and he is waiting for a ride. When I approach this old fellow he looks at me expectantly. This is his second source of income he explains later in the conversation we have. In the morning he goes to a shop doing odd jobs like cleaning etc. He rides his rickshaw from afternoon till night at 9. He roughly earns Rs 300 daily on an average from peddling his rickshaw. If you ask why at this age he has to exert so much he will explain that his kids are all grown up and have moved out of this city. He and his wife are alone and they do not want to depend on their kids for money.
Another rickshaw wala tells me how at one time they were almost banned and police would drive them out of the roads. However, that was a long time ago. Ban or no ban this profession does not offer much now as it used to once. What with the rampant spree of motored vehicles and even motored cycle rickshaw these peddled rickshaws are slowly vanishing.
Well, their stories and reason for choosing this profession might be different, but at the end of the day the need for money and no special skill, forces them to choose this meager livelihood. Is it that meager, you might ask? Especially with people having two jobs? Yes, by any standards, the amount of input they give to receive this output definitely qualifies this income as meager and sometimes deplorable. The owners of these rickshaws have a slow but steady income. Most of them have bought these rickshaws long time back as not many people in today’s world would find it a worthy investment, with autos proving to be a better investment as one of the owners tell me. Nevertheless, there is not much in terms of maintenance that these guys have to take care of. An occasional puncture, which is fixed by the rickshaw peddlers themselves.
On some occasions you might see an old man struggling to peddle his vehicle forward under the weight of his ride. Sometimes the rickshaw is laden with so much stuff that it’s almost inhumane. Not that this profession is ever humane. Sometimes when I am riding in one I almost feel guilty when I find the man who is peddling struggling to take the rickshaw forward. Why guilty? Is it not their choice? Will sympathizing at their plight give a solution or give them an alternative means of living? It’s a whole other debate. My answer is NO. No, I cant change this. What right do I have to change this scenario or remove rickshaws from the road, whatever the reason maybe? Somehow, I have made my peace with this. Anyhow, each working community is a part of this bigger urban community and we can just give our due respects to the person in front when our paths cross, if not anything else.
*Names changed to protect identity