Monday, August 22, 2005

CALCUTTA — Calcutta’s barefoot rickshaw-pullers — immortalized in books and films as they pull their human cargo through the city’s narrow lanes — will soon be a feature of the past.

Communist state authorities announced last week their intent to ban the hand-pulled rickshaws, saying they consider the practice “inhuman” — not to mention bad for the city’s image.

The sight of the rickshaw-pullers, sweat pouring from their brows and every sinew straining, has become an anachronism — and possible deterrent to investors — in this emerging information-technology hub with its sprawling new shopping malls, modern business centers and swank multiplexes.

“The sight of a human pulling other humans on his shoulders for a pittance does not enhance the image of Calcutta. It is a symbol of human bondage; it is inhuman; it looks ugly. It must be stopped immediately,” said Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the chief minister of West Bengal.

“Many Westerners associate Calcutta only with the world of beggars, lepers and rickshaw-pullers. They are wrong. Calcutta is vastly different from that flawed notion.”

Chinese traders introduced hand rickshaws to Calcutta more than a century ago, mostly to carry goods. In 1919, the British government officially adopted the rickshaws as a means of public transport.

Bicycle and motor-powered rickshaws remain in use in several Asian countries, and a few hand-pulled rickshaws are maintained for tourists in cities from Hong Kong to Honolulu — where blond surfers can be seen pulling Japanese visitors.

But hand-pulled rickshaws have been banned in China since the communists came to power in 1949, and Calcutta is the last place where they remain in general use.

The communist-led West Bengal government tried twice before to ban rickshaws since it came to power in 1978, but was blocked by resistance from trade unions.

The unions seem prepared this time to let the ban go through, along with a promise that all licensed rickshaw-pullers will be offered alternate employment, possibly driving bicycle or motorized rickshaws. However, an opposition-party leader announced yesterday that he would go to court seeking an injunction to block the plan.

Human rights campaigners have been demanding a ban on what they term a “feudal” means of transport since the 1980s. But not all rickshaw-pullers agree.

“We work hard, and life is meant for that,” said Dinanath Paswan, a 60-year-old rickshaw-puller. “We don’t understand how our work puts this city to shame.

“If a [porter] can be allowed to carry other’s load on his head, if a boatman can ferry across people by using hand oars, why can we not pull people on our rickshaws?”

Environmentalists also have argued that if all the hand-pulled rickshaws were replaced by the motorized variety, “the annual total of pollutants would increase by 11 tons of lead, 4,000 tons of particulates, 20,000 tons of carbon monoxide and 150 tons of oxides of nitrogen.”

Mr. Bhattacharya said the rickshaws would be eliminated in phases over three to four months, giving officials enough time to find other jobs for the 6,000 licensed pullers.

But there are as many as 14,000 unlicensed pullers, and the All Bengal Rickshaw-Pullers’ Association estimates that 35,000 people are engaged in the business as owners, contractors and pullers.

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