Soumyadeep Das, Joydeep Narayan Deb
A major portion of the 1.15 crore population of Guwahati is comprised of daily wage workers, be it rickshaw pullers, cart pullers or construction workers. At the end of a tiring day with their bodies worn out physically, what they get in their hands is a bare minimum wage. This daily income is their only source which directly goes into their basic familial needs of survival. From taking care of their elderly parents, to ensuring an education for their children, this dwindling and insecure income is their only pillar of strength.
On top of that, most daily wage workers in Guwahati are not residents of the city and come from other districts or states. Having to feed themselves and live in the city add to their already long list of basic expenditure. However, their voices seldom fall on deaf ears of the citizens as well as the authorities as they almost always fail to pay heed to their problems. Sitting inside their lakhs of rupees worth four-wheelers, with the ACs on full blast, it is impossible to comprehend a day under the blazing July sun.
Income disparities have divided the society into several classes where the motor car rider is perceived as a first class citizen, while the rickshaw puller has been pushed towards the third class category. And this thinking seems to perpetuate postmodern slavery today. Worldwide, more than 500 million people are still imprisoned in postmodern slavery and one form of this slavery is still prevalent among rickshaw pullers in Guwahati city.
Fast, efficient and environment friendly, but at what cost? If you are a resident of Guwahati, you must have come across the latest in line of technological advancements, the motorized rickshaw. While the newly built rickshaws fitted with battery operated motors are taking over the town, some grave questions have also come up in the wake of it.
Rickshaw pullers are shelling out to the tune Rs 80,000 to Rs 85,000 in getting the newest installment of public transport in the city, which according to them, reduces manual labour and enables them to take up rides that would otherwise not have been possible, long distances or up hilly slopes.
A meagre rate of Rs 20 to Rs 30 per ride does not help to have a steady and secure income, when at the end of the day, they are left with Rs 600 - Rs 700 in their hands. At first, it might seem a good enough income but deduct the cost of living in a metro city like Guwahati, added with an amount to be sent back home and in some cases, paying their masters a token amount for riding their rickshaws, and the gravity of the situation starts to sink in.
Sometimes an added passenger and at other instances, a ride up a hilly road take a toll on the frail figures of these impoverished rickshaw pullers. But this weight of the passengers is not the only thing for the rickshaw pullers to carry with the added burden of hope, trust and responsibility placed on each driver that they carry on every journey.
At times like these, the technological advancement has come as a boon to the rickshaw pullers. The difference that has come is that the need for peddling or manual labour has been taken out with battery operated motors pulling the rickshaws.
However, having shelled out close to a lakh rupees in purchasing the motor fitted rickshaws, they are now finding themselves in trouble. The Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC), in the wake of the rising number of such motorized rickshaws, issued guidelines banning them. GMC authorities claimed that motor-fitted rickshaws are more prone to accidents and that they have received several complaints regarding the rickshaws, which have supplanted manually pulled rickshaws.
According to a statement from GMC Mayor Mrigen Sarania in November this year, the manually pulled rickshaws fell under the category of Slow Motor Vehicles (SMV). However, the newer motorized rickshaws cannot be considered in the same category due to their increased speeds. He said that this has caused a rise in number of accidents in the city. And that is the reason behind implantation of the ban on the motorized rickshaws.
But who will listen to the rickshaw pullers, the supposed occupants of the lower strata of civil society? After having already purchased the new motorized rickshaws, they now find themselves in a fix. Where do they go from here?
Speaking to us, a rickshaw puller pleaded the Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to intervene and ensure that their means of income is not taken away from them. Abdul Salam Ali said, “I have been pulling rickshaws for over 40 years now. These motorized rickshaws came in about two months ago and I purchased one, a loan from my master. This cost me Rs 82,000 and now if the authorities decide to ban it, what will we do? We have already invested our earnings into this and are in debt to our masters.”
He went on, “I am old now and this helps me take on rides comfortably. At the end of day’s labour, I pay off Rs 300 to my employer, leaving me with around Rs 400 - Rs 500 in hand. The number of rides I take has not increased drastically, nor has my earning with customers not looking to pay more for the comfort. The only change that has come about is that our labour has decreased.”
Talking about the rise in accidents, he urged the authorities to provide licenses to rickshaw pullers and provide insurance to them.
Another rickshaw puller, Lalchand Ali, spoke to us saying, “Earlier I used to pull the manual rickshaws. It has been four months since I bought this motor rickshaw. It cost me Rs 85,000 and I took a loan to buy this and now have to think about paying it off. There has not been much of a difference in the number of rides or our income. I come from Dhubri where I have a family of three daughters and my elderly parents. I have to send money to them as well.”
Meanwhile, another rickshaw puller nearby came forward with his appeal to the government to not impose the ban. He said that he has seven people in his family back home that he has to take care of. And a ban will definitely bring them on the road. A confident and beaming man, he however was confident of taking up other daily wages jobs, permitted only by his younger age.
However, with the existence of rickshaw pullers at stake, questions have to be asked. At present there are over 200 motorized rickshaws in Guwahati and they did not come around all of a sudden. Most rickshaw pullers have brought these rickshaws in between two to four months ago. So why were the authorities slow in reacting to it if was deemed dangerous to city roads? The companies behind the manufacturing and sale of these rickshaws have already made their profits, but will they face any action for selling rickshaws that have been banned by the GMC? Or will it end with more suppression of these daily wagers, whose only fault was seeking some respite from their daily strenuous manually pulled rickshaws? Answers are awaited.