As some unexpected people in South India tried out pink thongs and playfully slapped each other on their butt cheeks (and thereby completely outsmarting a campaign targeted against them), another long-standing ‘tradition vs modernity’ story was being played out in the city of Calcutta with less colourful results.
Last fortnight, through an amendment in the Calcutta Hackney-Carriage Act of 1919, hand-pulled rickshaws were to have finally become a thing of the past. A few false starts had been made in the last few years, but this time round, it was supposed to be the real thing: hand-pulled rickshaws were finally going to the museum.
I was looking forward to the demise of the hand-pulled rickshaw not so much because a human pulling another human is paradoxically ‘inhuman’ but because the idea and the vision of a scrawny man pulling people around has always made me squirm with embarrassment, nostalgia-wallas be damned.
The bill was blocked from becoming law thanks to resistance from — no prizes for guessing — rickshawpullers, some 18,000 of them who still ply their trade in various parts of the city. In December 2006, when the Calcutta Hackney-Carriage Amendment Bill was passed in the West Bengal assembly, the government had argued that hand-pulled rickshaws were a shame for the city. It had also muttered something about rehabilitating all licensed pullers. (In 2006, there were 5,937 licensed rickshaws with the remaining 12,000 rolling about ‘invisibly’.) There was some talk about putting out-of-work pullers into car parking lots as attendants; there was another idea of monetary compensation. As is the case with our socialistic country, rehabilitation and compensation were burp-like words uttered to make difficult things sound smooth. Unsurprisingly, the All Bengal Rickshaw Union wasn’t convinced — despite stating that on principle they were okay about making hand-pulled rickshaws history.
But it’s a bit frustrating when you’re saying that a man pulling another man is humiliating for the puller, while the puller exclaims, ‘Shuddup! It’s not humiliating at all.’ It’s like a bonded labourer saying that he’s fine with the arrangement, so what business is it of ours.
Frankly, it boil down to our business. Whether it’s out of cultural shame or a genuine concern for the human pullers of humans, hand-pulled rickshaws should be as acceptable on the streets of 2009 India — yes, Calcutta is still in India — as underage prostitution or consensual slavery.
There is, of course, the resistance to change. Some even argue that the hand-pulled rickshaw is the only realistic mode of transport during Calcutta’s water-logging monsoons. That, I’m afraid, is putting the man before the cart.
I wonder whether Bengal’s government has considered ‘upgrading’ hand-pulled rickshaws to cycle-rickshaws. Clearly, there is a demand for a mode of short-distance transportation. Otherwise rickshawpullers would automatically have disappeared. A switch to cycle-rickshaws won’t only up the earnings of our people-pushers but will also make us, burners of calories on treadmills, impervious to future screenings of Do Bigha Zamin and City of Joy — and the next Danny Boyle flick?