The Price Of Technology

Cycle Rickshaw Pullers–a Vanishing Tribe

Sukanta Sarkar

A small ancient town in the western suburb. One and a half million people live. For the past 70-75 years, rickshaws have been the main form of internal or local transport in the town. Cycle rickshaw. In the past few years, auto and toto have made their way from the major roads of the city to the lanes and by-lanes. The fare is low. Speed is much higher than rickshaw. Naturally Auto or Toto is now the first choice of common people for commuting in local areas. The fifty-year-old Bapida, a resident of this town, is in trouble. Bapida means Vishwanath Mishra. But he is popularly known as Bapi or Bapida in this town. Bapida has been plying rickshaw for the past twenty years. Bapida has to regularly send some money every month for the family expenses, for the education of her two daughters and for her mother who lives with another brother. Even three years ago, Bapida's income was more or less Rs four hundred per day. Now it is not even Rs one hundred and fifty. In Bapida's words, ‘Five years ago, there were more than five to six hundred rickshaws plying in this town. Now there are less than 100’. Along with Totos, some motorised rickshaws or e-rickshaws are also seen in the town. However, its numbers are very few. But it is not possible for Bapida to buy Toto or e-rickshaw. He said, 'The price of Toto is Rs 1 lakh 25 thousand and the price of motorised e-rickshaw is about Rs 90 thousand’. It is beyond their reach.

In a small town in the northern suburb, Tapan Saha's condition is no better than Bapida's. Tapanda has been running his family for almost twenty years by plying pedal rickshaw or cycle rickshaw. But, for the last few years, his income has also declined. The area is full of Autos and Totos. ‘Whether or not, everyone wants to travel with less money. It also takes less time. So, people don't get into rickshaw. However, the number of battery-operated e-rickshaws in Tapanda’s town has also increased considerably. But it is not possible for Tapanda to buy an e-rickshaw. Because, like Bapida, Tapanda also does not have the financial ability to buy an e-rickshaw. Many of the rickshaw pullers who cannot afford to buy Auto, Toto or e-rickshaw have now changed their profession and started selling fish or vegetable from door to door.

Change will come with the improvement of science and technology. Its influence will be everywhere. This is how society progresses. This is normal. New technology supersedes the old and advances development. It benefits all people. But progress is called into question if the new technology harms even a small segment of society adversely and creates unemployment. Bapida and Tapanda are blaming Autos, Totos or e-rickshaws for their precarious existence. It doesn't take much to understand why they are deprived of the benefits of new technology. Blaming technology or banks for this is also completely absurd. The fault is not with technology. It is the failure of the persons in power to bring technology to people who are left behind.

 The plight of cycle rickshaw pullers today is not sudden. In the late ‘80s, with the arrival of the Auto in cities and suburbs, it was said from the government t that rickshaw pullers and unemployed youths would be trained to drive autos. The government also promised to help them to buy Autos by arranging loans from banks. In some cases it was done. But it is insignificant compared to the need. Very few rickshaw pullers were able to buy Autos after training and get loans from banks. However, many of the unemployed youth took this opportunity and bought Autos as well. After a few days, the matter of government initiative in training disappeared like camphor. Autos started running by making routes in different areas of the town. And the income of rickshaw pullers in the area started to decrease. For the past decade or so, Totos have been seen alongside Autos on the road. In the last few years, the number of Autos has multiplied manifold, serving even villages. As a result, the condition of cycle rickshaw pullers or cycle van pullers have become more critical.

People have definitely benefited from the arrival of Autos, Totos or e-rickshaws in Kolkata, Howrah and other cities and suburbs of the state. But, many cycle rickshaw pullers like Bapida, Tapanda are deprived of the benefits of this technology. Why deprived? Firstly, getting loans from banks is very difficult for marginalised people like them. Secondly, apart from banks, it is almost impossible for people like them to take loans from other financial institutions like cooperative credit societies, private lending institutions because of stringent rules and regulations. However, it is easier for marginalised people to get loans from microfinance institutions (MFIs), some cycle rickshaw pullers have taken loans from them and bought battery-operated or motorised e-rickshaws. But, the problem in this case is that interest rates in MFIs are much higher than banks, cooperative credit organisations or other private financial institutions. Hence, many cycle rickshaw pullers hesitate before taking loans from MFIs as well. The result: no auto or e-rickshaw for cycle rickshaw pullers. And these cycle rickshaw pullers are not getting any help from the government, especially the local government like Municipality, panchayat or subdivisional office, block development office or BDO. Local people’s representatives also do not want to be guarantors in disbursing loans from banks. There may be few exceptions. So the hapless cycle rickshaw pullers are in dire straits.

 There are trade unions of rickshaw pullers, mostly affiliated to the ruling party. Needless to say, no trade union has stood by these cycle rickshaw pullers during the current crisis. Are unions only for collecting subscriptions, marching or dealing with street harassment or rioting with commuters? Has any trade union in the entire state played any meaningful role in helping marginal rickshaw pullers to get loans from banks or financial institutions to buy Totos or e-rickshaws? But such a thing is rare. On the contrary, it is known that the rickshaw pullers who bought Toto or e-rickshaw after burning a lot of wood and straw, in most cases had to pay a lot of money while greasing the palms of union leaders to get a place at the Toto stand and e-rickshaw stand.

Marginal rickshaw pullers would not have been deprived of the benefits of technology if Trade Unions had been a little more proactive. If the Trade Unions can find a realistic way to solve this problem of the marginal rickshaw pullers by discussing it at the government level and not only in the political document or in the speeches at the meeting, then the cycle rickshaw pullers would have benefited properly by reaping the benefits of the technology. But no such initiative is known to have been taken by any labour organisation. Also, central union leaders are known to have taken no steps to stop their Toto or e-Rickshaw Stand Unions allegedly extorting money from new entrants.

For a long time, rickshaws, rickshaw-vans have been the most trusted source of local transport across Bengal, whether it is a city, town or a village. Thanks to technology, Autos, Totos, e-rickshaws have come today. No doubt the general public has welcomed this change. But the promise made by the government to give Auto, Toto or e-rickshaw to the rickshaw pullers in the beginning has remained a non-starter. As a result, thousands of cycle rickshaw pullers are actually spending sleepless nights with uncertain future. They see no light at the end of the tunnel.


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Vol 55, No. 43, April 23 - 29, 2023