It’s a hot, humid afternoon and Mohd Naseer, 35, is sitting under a blue tarpaulin, repeatedly wiping the flowing beads of perspiration from his face. He looks haggard, his eyes wear a faraway look. He has been hauling his rickshaw since 8 in the morning and has returned to the rickshaw garage for lunch and a bit of rest. His body, he says, has given up, his legs are aching.
“But I must go; I cannot afford to rest much. I have to pay the rent of the rickshaw to the owner and need to save before I go back to my village next week,” says Naseer, who hails from a village in Moradabad district of western UP. Suddenly, he pulls his shirt up and shows a scar on the abdomen. “Last year my intestine burst and I had to undergo a surgery; it still hurts when I pull the rickshaw, but I don’t have a choice,” he gets up and drags himself to his rickshaw.
The rickshaw garage at Mirdard Marg, near Maulana Azad Dental Institute, is his temporary home in the Capital, and his only belonging is a bag, hung on a peg drilled into the dilapidated garage wall. It contains a few clothes, a soap, and a toothbrush. In fact, the entire wall is festooned with dozens of bags of various colours and sizes, all belonging to the rickshaw-pullers. In the night, one can see dozens of rickshaw-pullers sprawled on the floor in concentration-camp like conditions, without even a fan to cool their sweating bodies.
Delhi has about a million rickshaw-pullers caught in a cycle of extortion, exploitation and poverty. And unlike the auto drivers and electric rickshaw owners, these pedal-pushers, who play a pivotal role in providing last-mile connectivity, have no voice. They are no one’s constituency, and face indignities on a daily basis.
Every second rickshaw-puller in the city, especially in and around central Delhi, is a seasonal migrant, who come to the city with just a few clothes and heads straight to one of the thousands of garages across the city owned by rickshaw contractors. Every rickshaw has the mark of a contractor (his name or nick name) with a rickshaw number. Many of them reportedly own as many as 1,000 rickshaws.
The garage at Mirdard Road is owned by one Mohd Yameen, 42, a stout, paunchy man, dressed in pristine white kurta and pyjama. He looks pretty incongruous in the company of impoverished rickshaw-pullers. Yameen sees himself as a benefactor, a guardian to these rickshaw-pullers to whom he rents out his rickshaws for `50 a day. “We have been renting rickshaws since the 1980s to these poor people. Unlike 10 years ago, now many educated youth come here wanting to rent a rickshaw. In fact, the numbers of people wanting to pedal a rickshaw for a living has been rising fast. The demand is more than the supply,” says Yameen, who is convinced he is running a social enterprise. Rickshaw-pullers around him are not amused about his charitable description of his business. But they choose to keep quiet.
Most rickshaw-pullers live a wretched life. After pedalling for almost 12-15 hours a day, most of them sleep in the garage (makeshift structures where rickshaw are parked and repaired) with only a tarpaulin to save them from the sun and the rain. Many rickshaw-pullers, worried about their vehicle being stolen, simply sleep on their rickshaw. And then, there are thousands who find the city’s footpaths a better place to spend the night.
But sleeping on the footpath is dangerous. In the night, the rickshaw-pullers say local ruffians snatch their hard-earned money. “The police don’t help, saying that those who rob us of our money are of our ilk. The police often use us to put up and remove barricades, which sometimes they hitch to our rickshaws. We are everyone’s slaves,” says Mohd Saleem, 22, who shifted to a garage after being robbed of his money.
At 5pm, he gets ready to leave the garage with his rickshaw. “While people get dropped at a mall where they do not mind spending thousands in a restaurant, they haggle over a fare of `15 with me, and there are many who walk away without paying. And if we argue, we get a hard slap,” says Saleem, his voice laced with anger.
Though poverty is their common identity, the rickshaw-pullers come from diverse caste and communities. In Patel Nagar, west Delhi, for example a lot of them are Brahmins — mostly young men from eastern Uttar Pradesh, who have come to Delhi looking for jobs. “No one in my village, except my parents, in Kanpur knows that I pull a rickshaw here; I have told my relatives that I work in a factory,” says Naresh Tiwari, dressed in a jeans and a shirt. “When I did not get a job, I had no choice but to rent a rickshaw. You see, I am MA in Hindi, “ he said.
Most rickshaw-pullers in Patel Nagar say they have to find an alternative employment as 90% of their business has gone to electric rickshaws. At the Metro station, arguments and fights break out between rickshaw-pullers and e-rickshaw drivers over who will take the passengers. Apparently, most passengers here prefer the faster and cheaper e-rickshaws.
“The CM is so worried about auto drivers and e-rickshaw drivers, why cannot he see our plight?” says Shankar Das, drawing nods of agreement from the fellow rickshaw-pullers around him.
Vighnesh Jha, founder of FORPA (Federation of Rickshaw pullers Association), an umbrella body of various rickshaw-pullers associations, says despite the Delhi HC verdict upholding their right to earn a livelihood, they continue to be off the radar of the policy makers. “There is no minimum fare, no parking stands for them, banks do not give them loans to buy rickshaws and they are barred from all arterial roads in the city. Instead of being rewarded with carbon credits, they continue to be considered a nuisance,” says Jha.
FORPA has launched a model project in Rohini which involves providing photo ID cards, social security cover to local rickshaw pullers, opening their bank accounts, etc. Jha says most rickshaw-pullers are malnourished. “Most stop plying their rickshaws by the time they turn 50. The daily toil takes its toll on their lungs and heart. They survive on meagre food, work in tough weather conditions. This city needs to be kinder to them,” says Jha.