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Calcutta Plans to Ban Rickshaws


Not so long ago few cities in the world suffered a worse reputation than Calcutta. Its name conjured up visions of overcrowded slums, disease and of profound human misery that could only be relieved by intervention from the likes of Mother Teresa. That's not the case now. Economists predict India's economy will grow by more than 7 percent this year, and the boom has reached Calcutta, prompting the Marxist state government there to start to overhaul the city's image. NPR's Philip Reeves visited Calcutta recently and sent this report.

(Soundbite of traffic; city noises)

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

As the sun sets over Calcutta, the rush hour begins. Lakun Sow(ph) is sitting by the curb reflecting on what so far's been a bad day. He's been at work since noon but has earned the equivalent of just 60 cents. It's a poor return for one of the toughest jobs on the streets.

Mr. LAKUN SOW (Rickshaw Puller): (Through Translator) It is difficult work, but unless we get another job, we can't leave. And without hard work, you achieve nothing.

REEVES: Lakun is what some here call a human horse. He's as short and wiry as a jockey, with a face which appears far older than his 30 years. That's hardly surprising. His job is day in, day out to run barefooted through the streets pulling a rickshaw.

Mr. SOW: (Through Translator) Of course my feet ache. But they are strong. They have to be strong.

REEVES: India is awash with motorized rickshaws and cycle-drawn rickshaws. But Calcutta's the only city where men on foot still pull along their fellow citizens. The rickshaw men trot through the puddles and potholes and polluted air, small men with bare chests and graying hair sounding their hand bells as they strive to compete with the melee of buses, yellow Ambassador taxis and new model cars. Only when the monsoon rains come do they gain an edge. Often hand-pulled rickshaws are the only vehicles that can negotiate the waterlogged lanes.

Anchita Gatak(ph) is from ActionAid, an organization which provides support for Calcutta's estimated 18,000 rickshaw pullers.

Ms. ANCHITA GATAK (ActionAid): Hundred shaw pullings stares you in the face the minute you come into Calcutta, and it shows you that everything in this city is not right and a lot of people are desperate for a living.

REEVES: Anchita Gatak says most of the migrants are from poor, rural areas, particularly Bihar and Ootahpidesh(ph).

Ms. GATAK: When they come here, they barely have a place to live because they live in cramped quarters; some even live on the streets. They have lung problems. Many of them suffer from malnutrition. Most of them suffer crippling pain. I mean, it's quite amazing how they do this, you know--carry such heavy loads, despite the fact that they suffer pain.

REEVES: The hand-drawn rickshaw has been in use in Calcutta since the city was capital of the British Raj. For decades after independence, Calcutta was generally better known outside India for its poverty than for its industry or its tradition of being the font of Bangoli(ph) intellectualism. The hand-pulled rickshaw became a kind of emblem of Calcutta. But the city's changing. Only a few miles from the cramped and grubby streets where Lakun's allowed to operate his rickshaw, a new and very different world is rising out of the swampy landscape.

Unidentified Man: In 1950, which company developed the computer (unintelligible) called the mouse?

REEVES: Outside a gleaming new shopping mall, a crowd of young, middle-class Indians competes in a quiz about computer technology. This is part of a wave of new construction in and around Calcutta. There are five-star hotels, factories, highway overpasses and office blocks.

The city is capital of West Bengal in northeastern India. For more than a quarter of a city, the state's been run by Marxists. It's also the heartland of the leftist bloc, upon whose support India's Congress-led coalition government depends for survival. Bright-red pictures of the hammer and sickle festoon the city's walls. Left-wing organizations still mastermind strikes and mass demonstrations. Yet purist Marxism has given way to pragmatic marketing. Calcutta's authorities have launched a big drive to attract foreign investment. Its mayor, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, says the place is becoming a major hub for the information technology industry.

Mayor BIKASH RANJAN BHATTACHARYA (Calcutta): This is the train. And if this train of growth continues to remain, that is one of the main sources for industrial rejuvenation. And keeping this IT hub in my mind, we find there are other industries which are really flocking around ...(unintelligible): the huge cement industry, the steel industry, the petrochemical industry. All these are now becoming ...(unintelligible).

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

REEVES: Beneath the flapping wooden fans in the gloom of the Calcutta coffeehouse, the city's thinkers, writers and talkers gather daily to drink coffee and converse. Writer Mehia Bhattacharya(ph) is watching these changes in Calcutta with a skeptical eye.

Mr. MEHIA BHATTACHARYA (Writer): They are creating two Calcuttas. In my opinion, they're abandoning the old Calcutta, and they're trying to create a new complex of cities. If you walk down the old Calcutta areas, you will find there are waterlogging, there are full of waste on the streets. But they're investing money on the eastern side of ...(unintelligible) metropolitan bypass. ...(Unintelligible) bypass, the airport area. They are investing a huge wealth of money.

REEVES: As this vast, old Indian city shifts ground and reinvents itself again, there are side effects. West Bengal's government says hand-pulled rickshaws have no place in the new Calcutta. The state's chief minister recently announced a ban. This has been tried in vain before, but this time he set a date, saying the rickshaws will be phased out by the year's end. It's a move Mayor Bhattacharya supports.

Mayor BHATTACHARYA: Hand-cart rickshaw pulling is definitely an inhuman concept. Now the government has been able to stop it, giving them the alternative avenues for their vocation of life. And these are terribly welcome.

REEVES: But it wasn't welcome, at least not by everyone. ActionAid's regional manager, Anchita Gatak, says she is against the hand-pulled rickshaw, but she doesn't support a ban without concrete guarantees from the government of alternative jobs and social support.

Ms. GATAK: We feel that rickshaw pulling, hand rickshaw pulling, is an inhuman occupation because we don't think it's right that one human being should have to carry another human being on his back to earn a living. But we definitely do not support the ban as it has been announced lately because we feel that it is important to ensure that every human being can earn a living with dignity.

REEVES: Rickshaw men seem to feel the same way.

(Soundbite of traffic noise)

REEVES: Mohammed Khalil, an activist with ActionAid, has been pulling a rickshaw around Calcutta for 30 years.

Mr. MOHAMMED KHALIL (Rickshaw Puller): (Through Translator) It's good for us because it gives me the means to feed my wife and children. How can people sitting on comfortable chairs say that it's inhumane? This is politics. Why didn't they feel bad 40 years ago? It is for me, the puller, to decide whether or not it is inhumane to pull a rickshaw. If Gandhi didn't feel bad sitting on a rickshaw, why do these politicians feel bad?

REEVES: As the sun sets and he sits on the curb in his rickshaw, Lakun Sow's concerns are more concrete.

Mr. SOW: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: He's got six children, he says. Of course, he frets about what he'll do if the ban's enforced. But for now, with just 60 cents in his pocket after five hours, he's worrying about his next fare. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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