Should you use a Hand Pulled Rickshaw in Calcutta?

Hooghly Bridge, Kolkata

The Howrah Bridge, Kolkata

 Welcome to Calcutta?

Calcutta, perhaps the name still conjures up images of poverty, suffering and Mother Teresa?

Calcutta, now called Kolkata, is the second largest city in India and perhaps India’s contrasts and extremes are nowhere more evident than here, the contrast of rich and poor, modern and old, is really in your face here, even more compared to the rest of India.
Calcutta Flower Market

Calcutta Flower Market

Kolkata is not really a easy city to visit or fall in love with, and its not a city where you can nip around taking in the sights and feel like you have ‘done’ it in a day.

I was told it’s more a city that you feel but as I roamed the streets all I could feel was the crush of humanity, the heat, dirt and sweat and my ear drums ringing with the deafening noise of the incredulous traffic jams leading to a rather overwhelming and exhausting experience.I came here wanting to change this negative perception. I tried to like Calcutta I really did, but sadly I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed my visit here. I found it hard to see why in India it is often referred too as the ‘the city of joy’! when hardly a street is untouched by grime, dirt, decay and chaos.

decrepit buildings kolkata

Decrepit buildings in Kolkata – still in use a hotel as well but I didn’t fancy staying here.

The last bastion of the Hand Pulled Rickshaw

The poverty in India has broken my heart a thousand times and one of the things that I found most disconcerting about Calcutta were the hand pulled rickshaws. This old mode of transport is now unique to Kolkata and has almost become an icon of this city, like the Howrah Bridge and the Victoria Memorial.
victoria memorial calcutta fp

The Victoria Memorial

What is strange about Kolkata is that this is a city with the first metro in India (in the 1980’s more than 20 years before the rest of India caught on) and Asia’s first luxury hotel yet it is also the last bastion of the hand pulled rickshaw and there are still about 8,000 of the streets of Calcutta that form the livelihoods of an estimated 35,000 people. 
Handpulled rickshaws in Calcutta. Photo Credit: http://www.indiamike.com/

Handpulled rickshaws in Calcutta. Photo Credit: http://www.indiamike.com/

In 2006 the authorities tried to ban hand-pulled rickshaws but these poor men, often pavement dwellers from other, even poorer, states like Bihar and Jharkhand, contributed from their meager earnings (about 100 rupees a day or about $1.50 ) towards a union to oppose the ban in the high court.
Despite what looks like shocking inhumanity to a Western mind, hand pulled rickshaws are reputed to the best form of transport in the monsoon when flooded streets are impassable in a taxi. Hand pulled rickshaws also provide an invaluable service for those Calcutta residents who could not be able to afford a taxi or auto rickshaw, the serve areas where buses would not be able to fit in the narrow, haphazard streets, and of course they are eco friendly!
A woman in a hand pulled rickshaw in a flood. Photo Credit: http://travelbeats.indianeagle.com/

A woman in a hand pulled rickshaw in a flood. Photo Credit: http://travelbeats.indianeagle.com/

So, despite the ban you can’t go far in Calcutta without seeing these old men, hanging around on the corners, touting for business. And you can’t ignore them – they approach and plead for business despite the look of disgust on my face as I watch a healthy man in his twenties nonchalantly being pulled along by an old man with no shoes or teeth and a weathered face.
hand rickshaw and yellow cab calcutta kolkata

Would you use a hand pulled rickshaw in Calcutta?

So, should you use a Hand Pulled Rickshaw?

Whilst I don’t believe it’s right to visit a country and try to inflict my culture or ideas on them, taking a hand pulled rickshaw just didn’t feel right to me.
But I could not decide what was worse, for a perfectly able young person to be pulled by a barefoot old man through the dirty streets of Calcutta or is it crueler still to deny him the chance to earn some money?
Hand pulled rickshaws in Calcutta - would you take one?

Hand pulled rickshaw wallah waiting for business. – would you take one?

Or should I have just given him some money and not taken the ride, perhaps bought him a pair of shoes or a chai, but that would have been treating him like a beggar when he is just trying to do a honest days work, perhaps that would that have been offensive to him? Or would it lead to more problems with beggars?

What should I do? Leave me a comment below and tell me if you would take a hand pulled rickshaw? 

33 Comments

  • Bettina says:

    I see cyclo drivers in Cambodia and wonder the same. It’s so hot here and I couldn’t think of anything worse than cycling or walking someone from one destination to another. In Phnom Penh, there are organisations that run “cyclo tours” and pay the drivers quite well for regular work. I wonder if they have something similar for hand pulled rickshaw drivers in Calcutta?

    • Thank you for your comment, it’s really interesting to learn about the cyclo drivers in Cambodia, Calcutta is not such a big destination for tourism but I really do hope that they can find some other employment where they do not suffer so much and that is not so inhumane.

  • Kutch Travels India says:

    I couldn’t and I wouldn’t use hand pulled rickshaw. You have asked such a difficult question that we all can discuss on this subject for hours as it is question of social, economics, moral and politics. perhaps few other aspects. Thank you Global Gallivanting for giving us chance to think over it. Hopefully someday these Rickshaw pullers will have better alternative to earn living.

  • Thanks Anna for raising the issue – it is not a simple one!

  • Jitender says:

    It’s but true,the extreme poverty compelling him to do so.
    He also even don’t want to do from the core of his heart,but he needs to earn money to feed his kids.

  • Rekha says:

    I always had this thinking in my mind, whenever i saw rickshaw pulling men in kolkata frown emoticon I prefered walking rather than torturing other human being. But at the same time, i felt bad about not helping him to earn. When i asked some of the locals, they said ” he is getting paid for working”.. but i can’t take a ride on that.. i never took one, even though i lived there for a while frown emoticon frown emoticon it is simply my morals which stopped me to do that.

    • I feel exactly the same Rekha Jayaprakash! I could not bear to take it but felt guilty and sad looking at his face when I declined him. Thanks for letting me know I am not the only one to feel this way!

      • Rekha says:

        U r welcome Anna Phipps… i really felt many times that why not the bengal government should come up with semi-automatic rickshaws..

        • Well I did some research and they did try to ban it in 2006 but apparently the rickshaw pullers fought the ban with their own money! I wish they could find some better employment for them

          • Rekha says:

            If locals stop using rickshaws, slowly they may look for other options to survive. Instead of banning it at a one go, government can provide alternatives. Banning can cause disaster to the families of rickshaw pullers.

  • Jitender says:

    Me too never took one

  • Jessica says:

    Is it that they can’t afford shoes or don’t want to use them? I am curious if buying them a pair of shoes would be an insult somehow…[obviously they are very poor I just mean would they prefer to use shoes if they were free]

  • Jitender says:

    I think you may be right Dave..he prefers to eat food that is rice and fish twice or once a day over wearing donated shoes.

  • Nicholas says:

    why question a 1000 year old culture smile emoticon in Bogor they are very popular

  • Abishek says:

    se this service as it’s unique, attraction, eco friendly. It’s just for short distance now, only found in kolkatta and mathern near Mumbai.
    A huge debate can be done on this, but in simple terms it’s their source of income and they don’t want to lose it!!

  • Deamio says:

    Why consider them as burden why not a novelty that’s unique only to Calcutta. There are many novelty transportation all over the world so keep it as a novelty. Even in Mumbai horse buggies are heritage novelty & are allowed only in certain heritage areas where as the rest of the city bans horse buggies

  • Joss says:

    “right” and “wrong” – in India?
    There is no right and wrong in this life. There is no good or bad… There are only consequences.

  • Daivd Leys says:

    Maybe that’s the only job they can do. People have pride and need to earn their money…even in extreme poverty. I say take a ride a give a large tip.

  • Abishek says:

    Well certainly it will take time, later it will change for sure. For time being see it as heritage and their source of income.

  • RATHINDRA NARAYAN GHOSH says:

    I would suggest to keep Hand Pulled Ricksaw lively in Kolkata but in a better form. Give the ricksaw puller their advantage like deciding to drive it in particular areas, with a special price tag and also improving the carriage in comfortable manner. This is a means of only transport non polluted. Brand it as the most prestigious vehicle of Kolkata instead of banning it. Keep the national heritage long live. RATHINDRA NARAYAN GHOSH, New Delhi

  • Devinder says:

    Thanks anna , I think the easy way is to help them move to some other profesion. It may be in terms of money or equipment. I think cycle riksha is bit better than hand pull, again tht is also not human but still does not put so much pressure. I am not sure how many NGOs work on these but there are battry Riksha which comes with in 50000 rupee from Delhi. I would say to give hand with local NGO to slowly remove this and ban on factories which build these rikshws at least. these idea are wage but one has to implement one day to remove this fully from society. People has to spend 100 rupee pm to help such people. if we can gather 5000 such people we can make at least 5 lakh rupee per month and help at lest 10 riksha pullers per month. I can get the contact to get battery rikshas making company contact on reasonable prices. we should make a group.
    plz come n join hands .

  • Louise says:

    I visited Kolkata last November. The Indian hotel owner had a long conversation with me about this issue. He said I should take one because I may be the only fare the man would get that day, which was the difference between food and no food. He told me that these men will never have had (and are therefore unlikely to have in the future) any other kind of job. I only took one once but often saw the man again and bought him chai. He was a proud man and not a beggar. Another thing worth noting is that they transport all the little clay cups in which street chai is served, all over the city in the early hours of the morning – thus helping this age old tradition too (many lanes are too narrow for motorised vehicles). They take children to school too. It seems to me that to stop it would render thousands of people jobless and have huge ramifications on the way the city works.

    • Anna says:

      Hi Louise, thanks for sharing your experiences, its a difficult choice to make isn’t it and it sounds like you had the same feelings as I did it about it but it seems like you learned alot about the culture and did it in a responsible and sensitive way. Hope you enjoyed your time in Kolkata 🙂

  • King says:

    Tamil Nadu banned hand pulled rikshas during the DMK rule under the Chief Minister,M.Karunanidhi. in 1970s.The hand rickshawallas were substituted with tri cycles which are still in use in Chennai.One rickshaw wallah became MLA too in DMK period.
    It is a knocking to me why the erstwhile communist government did not ban hand pulled rickshaw. It is inhuman to travel in a hand pulled rickshaw.

  • Robert says:

    I travelled to Kolkata in March this year & I am going back there in January for a second visit (I was born close by & left India in 1971 as a 5 year old to live in Australia) I had no problem using rickshaws. I tipped them generously to ease their pain. There was one guy that I used more than once who I even fed (kathi rolls) as well as paying him twice his fair. These guys deserve to be tipped well. I could not imagine doing what they do but they have to eat. It actually made me feel good giving them the business. Just another perspective.

  • Daniel says:

    I say take the rickshaw and tip generously.

  • very good post and a clear view about hand pulled rickshaw in kolkata. Your photo regarding a poor ricksha puller in kolkata carry a woman in flooded street was viral. Thanks for your posting

  • Mai says:

    I think hand pulled rickshaw is not inhuman job. The problem is people pay unreasonably cheap money for their labor in India.
    Here in japan we have many hand pulled rickshaws for tourists in many cities. it’s expensive, you need to pay $30 for 15minutes ride. And price wil be higher for more people for a cart. They pulled a cart with tourists but they don’t think they are doing same job as horses. they are enjoying their job. Do you know “rickshaws” is originally a Japanese word. it’s said that first invented in Japan and we used to export many rickshaws to Asian countries. Its very traditional and unique. it’s sad if they are all disappeared.
    the job of rickshaw itself is not inhuman at all,
    What inhuman is many people are working with unreasonably low wages. It’s not only for rickshaws, many other labours in India, such as housekeepers.

    • Anna says:

      Thanks for your insight Mai. 🙂 I agree with you that the wages are too low and it’s interesting to hear about rickshaws in Japan – I’ve always wanted to visit Japan but I didn’t know that they had rickshaws there too.

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