They are clean, efficient, safe and flexible — and banished from Capital roads. The humble cycle-rickshaw may have gained popularity as an eco-friendly pedicab in European and American cities, but its survival in Delhi is in doubt.
A court ban and motor-vehicle-driven transport and road development policies of the government are driving rickshaws towards an uncertain future.
This puts at stake the livelihood of lakhs of rickshaw-pullers in the city. Though no official data is available, it is estimated that there are six lakh cycle-rickshaws (only 89,429 are licensed) and four lakh goods rickshaws plying in Delhi.
The ban may make cycle-rickshaws seem like a nuisance but they also have their own advantages. According to the Initiative for Transportation and Development Programmes (ITDP) — an NGO that has introduced the lightweight, modern cycle-rickshaw, now plying around the Taj Mahal in Agra, in Delhi, Jaipur and other cities — cycle-rickshaws are the future solution to Delhi's air pollution.
“In Delhi alone cycle-rickshaws make more than one crore short-distance trips in a day, saving huge government investments in parking and thousands of crores of rupees that would otherwise have been spent on motorised transport for the same number of trips,” says Nalin Sinha, programme director of ITDP.
Besides, they provide honest means of living to three per cent of India's population without any financial investment or support from the government.
The socio-economic profiling of rickshaw pullers done by the NGO shows that most of the rickshaw pullers are unskilled, uneducated or landless farmers, of whom 68 per cent belong to the Other Backward Classes and 20 per cent to the SC/ST category. So the rickshaw-pillers do not have a choice.
Then there are misconceptions about rickshaw pulling. “It is a myth that pulling cycle-rickshaws is inhumane. The rickshaw pullers are much better off than construction labourers who have to carry heavy loads on their heads, coolies at railway stations or labourers who pull loads of 500 to 1,500 kg in pushcarts.
Pedaling a cycle-rickshaw with two passengers (150 kg) for a distance of 3 km is far less strenuous and helps the pedal soldiers earn as much as Rs 200 a day," says Sinha. ITDP's schemes to assist rickshaw pullers become rickshaw owners by getting them interest-free loans has helped them earn 40 per cent more, he adds.Director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Sunita Narain, also makes a strong pitch in favour of cycle-rickshaws and other modes of non-motorised transport. “It is a misconception that cycle-rickshaws cause congestion. It is the cars that are causing congestion. It is sad that in a socialist country like India, the poor rickshaw pullers are getting targeted for no fault of theirs,” says Narain.
A study carried out by CSE in Ambedkar Nagar shows that over 60 per cent commuters travel by public transport buses that use up 8 per cent road space, while cars move only 20 per cent people and take over 75 per cent road space. Bicycles move 20 per cent passengers and use 18 per cent road space.
It is the cars that have taken over road space and need to be taken off the road by introducing a dense network of Metro trains, High Capacity Bus System, and Light Rail System with auto-rickshaws and cycle-rickshaws providing the feeder services.
“The city’s air was first stabilised by introducing 10,000 CNG-fuelled DTC buses and now we have to adopt the integrated transport policy, so that the city can breathe easy” says Narain.
Dr Geetam Tiwari of IIT, Delhi, says that redesigning the roads is all that is required to allow the cycle-rickshaws to ply on the arterial roads. “Then they will not come in the way of fast-moving vehicles,” says Dr Tiwari. The cycle-rickshaws are already providing feeder services at 50 metro stations, including the Delhi University station, and they need to be formally integrated with our public transport system, she adds.
As for Old Delhi, it is the motorised vehicles that need to be banned so that the rickshaws can provide noiseless, pollution-free, door-to-door service in the narrow streets and bylanes, Tiwari says. Banning the cycle-rickshaws is only going to compound the environmental and socio-economic problems in the city, planners and experts say. So let the wheels be set in motion to let the rickshaw claim its pride of place on roads.