Chocolate and Gold Coins

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Cycle Rickshaw

Saket (aka Vulturo), who writes and excellent blog, tells of his experience with old-fashioned cycle rickshaws in Delhi:

I did not quite like the Cycle-Rickshaw idea when I came across it, for I believe it is a bit inhuman to use human beings in the role of “Beasts Of Burden”. But the DTC Buses which run here are worthless, and finally everyone has to fall back on cycle-richshaws. However, for the first two days, on moral grounds, I stoutly refused to use a cycle-rickshaw to go anywhere and used my own two feet instead. On the third day, a cycle rickshaw driver explained the logic to me “Agar aap nahi baithenge to hum paise kaise kamaenge” and then I somehow reconciled myself. Still, one person per rickshaw is somewhat acceptable, I think - but I sometimes I see even two or three people in them with the rickshaw puller huffing and panting like a dog while pulling his quarry. What is apalling is people even haggle with the poor rickshaw puller, just to save two to three rupees.


Charu, who writes an excellent blog, writes of her similar experience with cycle rickshaws in Jalandhar:

Jalandhar is a small town in many ways - nice friendly people who want to know everyting about you and invite you home for garam khaana (hot food) right after the first meeting…

And small enough for people to commute by cycle rickshaw… Five rupees can take you a long way in this city. And people bargaining with the rickshaw puller - paanch rupaiye kyon? paas hi to jaana hai - teen rupaiye le lo (why five rupees for such a short distance - take three rupees)

I guiltily think about how little five rupees means to me. I wave away the rickshaws who stop near me and start walking…

What is worse - to ride on one of them, with another human being pulling you? or walking away and depriving him of this opportunity to earn his living? I never know…


I have taken a few rides on a cycle rickshaw, but not in India. They are a sort of tourist novelty in Victoria, Canada (a beautiful city – Sunil you and your wife must take the ferry over there). I did not feel any bad feeling about being pulled by another human being because these guys are college students and they are just trying to make a little summer money. They weren’t desperate. But if they were disparate, wouldn’t that mean I had a duty to help them?

The reason we might feel bad about the cycle rickshaw is because it is a holdover from a previous time when economic opportunities were scarce and some people went to this occupation out of desperation. We feel intuitively that a fair society would not cause people to do this. It might be similar to the way we might view prostitution or bar dancing. We think that this should not be happening, and we should not help make it happen. Of course, the analogy to prostitution is extreme: both the rickshaw driver and the prostitute offer their bodies, but the similarity ends there.

However, people should be free to do as they please, and if a man wants to pull a cycle rickshaw, that might be the best employment opportunity he can currently find. We cannot help him by simple refusing his services. Of course, we should be free to refuse his services if we really prefer to walk. But there is no reason to deny him a living simply out of a sense that his job shouldn’t exist.

Instead of thinking that the cycle rickshaw represents the dark side of the free market, we should see it as the dark side of socialism. In a free market, cycle rickshaws only exist as a tourist novelty. In socialism, it is a way of life for a segment of society that was denied other employment opportunities.

11 Comments:

  • I used to feel the same way Charu & Saket did, but my mom pointed out that a) the rickshaw driver was doing this to earn a living, and he deserved to earn a living and b) accepting to ride in a rickshaw could mean the difference between him and his family eating that day, or starving. I decided to take the rickshaw.

    But I also decided that I would give him the price he asked (10 or 20 rupees), because that was a fair (I would say extremely fair) price, and it was inhuman to bargain even that.

    I think the far greater crime is not the rickshaw driver needing to drive one for his livelihood, but the fact that middle class people insist on bargaining with him over 5 or 10 rupees, while they wouldn't blink an eyelid to buy their children a 30 rupee chocolate bar. A 5 mile ride costing less than a chocolate bar to me is a crime....

    By Blogger Sunil, at 7:15 PM  

  • By Blogger Ashish Hanwadikar, at 9:41 PM  

  • Michael,

    I grew up in several small towns, where cycle rickshaws were pretty much the only form of transport for people, who did not own vehicles. Big Cities had city buses but for small towns there were not really any other options. Even now, many people in small towns make a living by pulling cycle rickshaws. Its not that someone has denied them other employment oppertunities, just that this is the best they could come up with, given the circumstances. They are really not much worse off (both financially & workload wise) as compared to daily labourers (people who work at construction sites), porters at railway stations and scavengers who clean the streets manually. So I cant agree with the point that these jobs should not exist. Of course, steps should be taken to ensure that these jobs, like any other, bring dignity and two comfortable meals a day for the worker. Apart from minimum wage/fare regulation, people can also contribute by not overloading the cycle rickshaws and not bargaining with them for small change.

    By Blogger Deba, at 12:25 AM  

  • You are right Michael. There is no tourist novelty involved in cycle rickshaws at Delhi. It is due to abject poverty and absence of other sources of employment. The auto-rickshaw drivers are skinny, sunburnt fellows wearing ragged clothes and definately don't do it for fun. They do it because there are no other viable sources of employment as non-capital intensive - upon quizzing a cycle rickhsaw driver, I learnt that he managed to earn 200-250 Rupees a day. Which makes it 5000 - 7000 per month without any 'running cost'.

    An auto rickshaw driver in Mumbai earns about 6000 - 12000, in profits after paying for the CNG (which is subject to price hikes) and paying for the Auto-Rickshaw in the first place. If capital was available to these people, they would rather not pull cycle-rickshaws - they would prefer driving Auto-Rickshaws insted, or open a small shop somewhere.

    By Anonymous Vulturo, at 2:21 AM  

  • I must say that you got a remarkable post right there..

    By Blogger FlirtinFelicity, at 2:56 AM  

  • Michael, I agree with what many people have said on my post - that the rickshaw-wala is only tryng to earn a living with this - I guess the solution is to use the servce if you just but not haggle - just pay tha 10 or 20 rupees - how much poorewr does that make us? or how much richer, the 2 or 5 rupees that we save by this bargain?

    By Anonymous charu, at 5:03 AM  

  • Hi Sunil, Ashish, and Deba
    Sunil: My father-in-law has a theory with porter and such people: he will bargain with them to get a good price and then tip them the difference between the bargain price and the "fair price". This way he is not overpaying, he is being generous. I thought that was interesting.

    Btw, have you ever visited Victoria? It is easy from Seattle. I think there is still a ferry that runs between Seattle and Victoria and it's a very nice trip.

    Ashish: Thanks for the link. Actually some people love working on a cruise ship. My niece sure does.

    Deba: I agree that pulling a rickshaw may be the best current option for the rickshaw puller. But as India developes, these jobs will vanish. People will choose to do other things.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:17 AM  

  • Hi Saket (vulturo), Flirtin, and Charu
    Saket: I find it amazing that these poor people can pull a rickshaw all day long and only make 200 rupees a day. They must be burning up 4000 calories a day in exercise. Can they even buy 4000 calories of food for 200 rupees?

    I would think that they would insist on a higher fare to go further, since it burns up calories and is otherwise painful. And I would think they would insist on double fare for double occupancy for the same reason. I wonder why you don't see that.

    Charu: Read my response to Sunil and my father-in-law's approach.

    I agree that bargaining with the rickshaw puller seems greedy. But the flat fare anywhere policy doesn't make sense either. I wonder why that happens? Maybe because once a tradition starts, it is hard to change it.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:28 AM  

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    By Blogger TS, at 7:31 AM  

  • The first route is from the Naikan teeth Kumari in the south of India, traveled through a country the size of a little trampling tourists. Since then, this route has been adapted into a classic run, which is to provide a rickshaw challenge one of four routes.

    Bicycle Rickshaw

    By Blogger chief gabril, at 12:19 PM  

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