Last-mile lifeline for rickshaws with Delhi Metro set to resume
Umesh Chand was on his way home on Saturday when, at about 9 pm, he got a call from a relative, informing him that Metro trains would restart soon. He immediately confirmed the news on his mobile phone. For the past few days, Chand, a rickshaw-puller, had been thinking of returning to his village as his income had dipped drastically. “I used to make Rs 600 every day; these days I am lucky if I make Rs 150. Getting passengers has been a struggle after the Metro closed. Now that the Metro is reopening, I will stay back in Delhi,” says Chand, sitting in his rickshaw at the Moolchand Metro Station, right next to a signboard that marks the area as a ‘halt-and-go’ parking space for cycle and auto-rickshaws. He was the only rickshaw-puller in the parking, which had been overtaken by cars belonging to customers of a popular paratha joint at the station, which is doing brisk business.
“Before Metro stopped its services, this parking used to have more than 100 rickshaws, all parked in a queue, waiting for passengers, and they never had to wait for more than a few minutes. Rickshaw-pullers in Delhi cannot survive without the Metro,” says Chand, who is from Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and has been pulling a rickshaw in the city for almost 12 years.
Talk to any rickshaw-puller in the city – there are about 600,000 of them, most of them seasonal migrants from UP and Bihar — and they will tell you how their lives came to a halt and their income fell by nearly 80% after the Metro suspended its services in March due to the coronavirus crisis. The rickshaw-pullers who earlier used to make anything between 500 and 700 per day, now barely made Rs 100-150, with the wait for passengers stretching for hours. Gone were the long queues of rickshaw-pullers at Metro stations, which ensured a steady flow of passengers throughout the day.
The fate of the humble rickshaw in the Capital has been closely tied to the Delhi Metro ever since it came to the city. No wonder then, with the Metro announcing on Saturday that it would restart its operations from September 7, rickshaw-pullers feel their lives too would be back on track soon.
Sujit Kumar,28, another rickshaw puller at the Moolchand Metro station, says the Metro ensured he never had to bother about where to find passengers. Every morning at 8, he would come to the station and for the next three hours, he would be busy taking commuters to and fro without a break. “ But today, I keep moving from Defence Colony to Andrews Ganj to the Amar Colony market in search of passengers, and consider myself lucky if I find one,” says Kumar. When the lockdown happened in March, Kumar, who is from a village in Bihar’s Katihar, pedalled to his home town, covering over 1,500km, in his rickshaw.
He came back in the last week of July and rented a rickshaw. “ I had heard the news that the Metro was reopening, but unfortunately, it did not,” says Kumar, who returned by train, leaving his own rickshaw behind. In his village, many others who pulled rickshaws in Delhi stayed back, saying they would come back when the Metro starts. “Today, I called them to say the Metro is starting. But they were doubtful and said they would come only after it actually restarts. Metro ensures a steady income to us.”
A 2012 study tilled ‘Urban Transportation Infrastructure and Poverty Reduction: Delhi Metro’s Impact on the Cycle Rickshaw Rental Market’ by Kurosaki Takashi, a professor at the Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, Japan, said the Delhi Metro increased the demand for traditional transport services such as cycle rickshaws, resulting in the higher total number of rickshaw-pullers and higher income at lower working hours per day. More than 70% of rickshaw pullers — in a sample of 1320 — said they prefer to work near a Metro station because either there are more customers or each customer pays a higher amount for the ride.
Mukesh Singh, a rickshaw-puller in Patel Nagar, testifies to it. “ When the Metro was running, most of my passengers were office-goers. Now only locals take my rickshaw to visit markets. I get Rs 15 for a ride that earlier got me Rs 30. And I have no option but to accept it,” Singh says. In fact, one can see only a few rickshaws at the Patel Nagar Metro Station, which used to witness fights over parking space between rickshaw-pullers and e- rickshaw drivers. “ While my income has gone down four times, I continue to pay the same rent, Rs 50 a day, for my rickshaw,” says Singh, adding that the Patel Nagar Metro station was like his ‘workplace’, where he would come by 9 am and leave by 12 midnight when the doors of the Metro closed. “Now I leave the house at 11 am and generally wait for passengers in the nearby markets and return home by 6 pm, my earning barely crossing Rs 150,” says Singh, who is from Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh.
Introduced in Delhi in the 1940s, cycle rickshaws were seen as a major technological advancement over the hand-pulled rickshaws. Vighnesh Jha, founder of FORPA (Federation of Rickshaw pullers Association), an umbrella body of rickshaw-puller associations, says there were about 800,000 rickshaws in Delhi until 2012, but their numbers almost reduced by half over the past few years because of the growing popularity of e-rickshaws.
Jha credits the Metro with driving the income of rickshaw-pullers by creating the need for last-mile connectivity in Delhi. “ When there was no Metro, hardly anyone talked about last-mile connectivity. Those who used DTC buses generally walked to their bus stand because unlike a Metro station, which could be 1 to 3km from their house, bus stands were always a couple of hundred metres,” says Jha. “Over the years, Metro stations became rickshaw hubs where rickshaw-pullers parked their rickshaws, important in a city that has no parking stands for cycle rickshaw and no minimum fares.”
Rajendra Ravi, founder, Institute For Democracy And Sustainability, a Delhi-based non-government organisation, which fights for the cause of green transport, says rickshaws in Delhi are also a source of what he calls ‘invisible mobility’ during the hard lockdown. “When no transport was available, many families and senior citizens used rickshaw- pullers, who fetched grocery and medicines for them. Most rickshaw-pullers work in a particular area, and so many locals know them personally. Many people used them to distribute essentials to the needy,” says Ravi, adding that there has been a symbiotic relationship between the cycle rickshaw and the Metro. “ Cycle rickshaws helped the world-class transport such as Metro by being an important feeder service and the Metro helped them get passengers,” says Ravi, a social urban planner.
In the last 15 years, he says, cycle rickshaws have figured in all urban transport policy and plans, all of which have recognised their role in employment generation and sustainable transport. The Delhi Master plan 2021 and the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP 2006) emphasised the promotion of non-motorised modes (cycles and cycle rickshaws) of transportation in cities, acknowledging that the rickshaws provided employment to a large number of unskilled workers in the city. “The time has come to modernise cycle rickshaws and formally integrate them into our urban transport system,” says Ravi.
Prof Avilash Roul, principal scientist at Indo-German Center for Sustainability, Indian Institute of Technology Madras, feels the pandemic has provided an opportunity for planned integration of rickshaws into public transport in Delhi. “ Like the bike-sharing system, cycle rickshaws should be integrated into the city’s public transport system. It is a good idea to introduce dial-a-cycle-rickshaw service, ” says Roul. “ I feel cycle rickshaws can also be part of a planned post- pandemic poverty alleviation and livelihood programme.”
In the meanwhile, Radhey Shayam Verma, 29, a rickshaw-puller near the Mayur Vihar Metro station, calls up a few people who used to regularly take his rickshaw. “ Metro stations allowed me to make personal connections with many people in the area. But some of my regular customers have started using their own cars. They said they would use my services when the Metro restarts. Since it is starting now, I wanted to ask if they are coming,” says Verma, wearing a mask.
Verma, who hails from Kanpur and has studied up to the 11th standard, keeps a small bottle of sanitiser in his pocket. “I have a small child at home and cannot afford to fall sick. These days, I do not allow more than one person in my rickshaw. One of my passengers told me that rickshaws, which are mostly open, are safer than closed auto and taxis. I hope commuters will understand this and use our services when the Metro starts next week.”
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