Saturday, June 28, 2008
The bicycle rickshaws that weave through New Delhi’s narrow lanes have long been scorned by authorities here for congesting the city’s already fierce traffic. The creaking carriages crawl alongside luxury sedans, book hawkers, horse-drawn carts, hulking buses and cows.
In this city and the other quickly modernizing capitals of South Asia, governments have called the rickshaws backward, embarrassing symbols of the Third World.
Now, however, in a time of $7-a-gallon fuel in New Delhi and growing concerns about pollution, environmental activists and transportation experts are pushing back against rickshaw critics. And rickshaw cyclists are seizing the moment to tout the virtues of their trade.
“My rickshaw is my life. It’s very cheap for my passengers,” said Saurabh Ganguly, a 27-year-old rickshaw cyclist whose shirt was sticky with dirt and grime. He proudly observed a knot of traffic where about 50 rickshaw cyclists were jangling their bells, pressing their horns and zigzagging past lumbering buses belching plumes of black soot. “We don’t even pollute,” Ganguly said. “We should be allowed to survive.”
Survival has been tenuous for bicycle rickshaws here. Last year, New Delhi banned them in the old walled neighborhood known as Chandni Chowk, one of the capital’s most ancient and crowded shopping bazaars, as well as on main roads. While the ban has not been aggressively enforced, rickshaw cyclists say they often pay bribes to keep working.
An international nonprofit group, the Initiative for Transportation and Development Policy, challenged the ban in India’s Supreme Court this month, saying current economic and environmental conditions have made rickshaws more necessary than ever.
“We must save the cycle rickshaw drivers. Look at the soaring fuel price hikes,” said Nalin Sinha, program director for the group’s New Delhi office.
“These bikes are wonderful alternatives. They provide an affordable, smog-free choice,” Sinha said. “But unfortunately, when the whole world is talking about the environment, we in South Asia are talking about ‘development.’ We somehow think we are better if we have hordes of swanky cars.”
We’re even worse: we think we’re better if we have hordes of junk!
There is anecdotal evidence that ridership has increased in some South Asian cities as customers look to save on transportation costs. Sinha said his group is studying the issue.
New Delhi’s Center for Science and Environment is also pushing for the court to overturn the ban in Chandni Chowk. The group has pointed to increases in the city’s pollution and in the number of children with asthma, blaming the growing number of motor vehicles. India’s economic boom is adding nearly 1,000 cars a day to the capital’s streets.
“We should be building bike lanes to provide the cycle rickshaws a humane driving area for many reasons. Let’s face it, fuel prices are only getting higher, and here we have an alternative right in front of us,” said Vivek Chattopadhyaya, the center’s pollution researcher. “If we keep banning them, we will regret this in future generations.”
Some activists in India cite the increasing number of bicycle rickshaws being used in cities such as London, Paris, New York and Washington, often in neighborhoods with high congestion and heavy foot traffic. Local governments have welcomed the rickshaws as environmentally friendly alternatives.
There are an estimated 600,000 bicycle rickshaws in New Delhi serving an estimated 4 million customers. Trips range from one to six miles. The rickshaws — many festooned with flowers and tricked out with paintings of cartoonish Bollywood starlets and cricket stars — usually charge less than 50 cents a trip. On a recent monsoon-drenched afternoon, two female college students shopping for jeans said they were taking a bicycle rickshaw as an alternative to increasingly pricey taxis and auto-rickshaws, also powered by gas.
Indian women and children tend to take bicycle rickshaws more often than men because the rickshaws are seen as safe compared with overstuffed buses and unknown taxi drivers.
“We love the peaceful and private ride and the breeze,” said Shweta Goyal, 19, an English literature major, as she settled in for a ride. “I like that the price is never impacted by fuel hikes. To me, it’s a lovely way to do some shopping as a woman.”
In Bangladesh’s traffic-clogged capital of Dhaka, where there have been widespread protests over the rising prices of rice and fuel, rickshaw cyclist Shamsul Haque said business has never been better.
We could use some widespread protests ourselves. And some widespread rickshaws.
“There’s been a turning point suddenly,” said Haque, 25, a father of two who moved from a rural area to get a job as a rickshaw cyclist. “Our customers know we are cheap and very friendly.”
Some government officials have a different view.
“The rickshaws are popular in the walled old city like Chandni Chowk, but they can lead to large amounts of congestion,” said Pawan Khera, secretary to the chief minister of New Delhi. “It’s also not so easy for them since there are so many different kinds of motorized traffic on the roads.”
It’s not so easy for them because of the polluting traffic that’s stopped in their way. So let’s ban them. That’ll make it easier for them!!
Khera said cycle rickshaws will always have a place around the city, but perhaps only in certain areas. New Delhi, meanwhile, is working to curb pollution by expanding the metro rail system and requiring new buses to run on compressed natural gas.
On a recent day in Chandni Chowk, rickshaw cyclists could be seen sweating and straining as they conveyed passengers through the city. Amid the chaotic lanes lined with sellers of Rajasthani slippers, fresh lime soda and incense, a few sari shoppers loaded stacks of wedding clothes onto one rusty old rickshaw. Their fare would be a quarter of what it would cost to drive or take a taxi.
“We do a proper job for everyone,” lamented Mohammed Avip, 35, a rickshaw cyclist nearby. “Why does the police and government harass us so?”
Did Mohammed Avip ever think of that? Did you?
When our mechanized civilization is all over except the crying, before the radiation poisoning has killed absolutely everybody, wheels will still roll and people will still roll them.
Prepare yourself or not; it’s your choice.
But don’t say I didn’t warn you.