October 25, 2007

Eco-friendly vehicles crushed under motor wheels

India has missed a golden opportunity to promote human powered vehicles which would keep the cities clean and give gainful employment to millions.

Without doubt, there is space and scope for integrating the cycle rickshaw into the urban transport plan. Banning rickshaws on the pretext of congestion on city streets is unreasonable; cars and auto rickshaws owe much more to it.

Cycle rickshaws hold distinct advantage over motorised transport: these are non-polluting and non-violent form of public transport. They neither emit fumes nor ignite road rage! Unless public policy allows cycle rickshaws to negotiate their position, an opportunity to impact change in the city environment in light of ensuing climate change will be missed.

When improved cycle rickshaws, with speed gears and ergonomic design, were launched in Agra in 1997, the future of the poor man’s public transport had started looking up. Ten years later, the status of rickshaw is that of abject ridicule as many cities have banned the movement of this environment-friendly pedal-powered convenience from municipal limits.

While the historic Chandi Chowk in Delhi had banned the ubiquitous rickshaw following the High Court order five years ago (a petition challenging the order is at the Supreme Court), the adjoining satellite township of Noida has recently curtailed its movement from busy sections of this fast developing city.

By contrast, rickshaws are seen as symbols of the future in developed nations – an environment friendly means of transport. On New York’s fifth avenue people could be seen looking around for cycle rickshaws in the evenings. Elsewhere in North America and Europe, cycle rickshaws are finding favour with commuters.

The India Cycle Rickshaw Improvement Project, undertaken by the New York-based Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP), was born out of the realisation that improving the design efficiency of human-powered public transport could be a win-win situation. From improving city environment to providing gainful employment, rickshaws could be a cheaper mode of public transport.

The ITDP designers had deployed a tubular body to reduce the rickshaw’s weight by 30 per cent; designed multi-gear system for easy pulling; and had created low height passenger friendly seating features.

All this, within the cost price of a traditional rickshaw – an estimated Rs 6,000.

Though several rickshaws plying across cities do resemble the improved version, the clones do not carry the essential elements of the design. Says designer Shreya Gadepalli, who had worked on the project, “… as the principal designer it does pain me to see that not all vehicles are as light, safe or comfortable as they could have been; features like multiple gears, which were seen as an extra cost, were done away with.”

With support from USAID, the India Project had contributed to improving rickshaws in many cities. However, the spread of the revolutionary design has ceased since the project came to a close in 2003.

Thanks to an indifferent policy environment and an irresolute rickshaw industry, the innovation aimed at benefiting as many as 4-5 million cycle rickshaws in India has literally been squandered. Against the powerful automobile industry, the unorganised human powered vehicle industry stands little chance to impact change. It is however another matter that the annual turnover by cycle rickshaws is worth Rs 1500 crore.

The modernization of cycle rickshaw in India has already proven to be a more cost effective way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions alongside securing better livelihoods for millions, at no extra burden to the state.
The launch of improved rickshaw in Agra was aimed at reducing harmful emissions from polluting auto rickshaws and cars from the periphery of the one of world’s seven wonders.

However, in the absence of political patronage the inherent potential of cycle rickshaws in generating elusive carbon credits for resource-crunched municipalities is being missed.

Earning carbon credits may not be far-fetched but the fact that rickshaws generate gainful employment for millions should be reason enough for developing countries to be empathetic towards it. The results of the revolutionary design changes had led to an appreciable increase in income for traditional rickshaw, from a low of Rs 75-80 to Rs 110-120 per day.

After deducting the rental costs, the previous earnings were only marginal higher. Interestingly, the new design gave the poor rickshaw drivers a chance to earn more by spending less energy. However, for manufacturers and contractors the enhanced income to poor rickshaw drivers has been of little consequence.

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