July 27, 2008

City Rickshaws Fight Ban

They are the cheapest taxis; provide rapid transit by cutting corners and ferry a hundred thousand people each day on short intra-city trips with zero emissions. Delhi’s cycle rickshaws, on roads since the 1940s, have now fallen into disrepute for their apparent reckless ways.

The hitherto voiceless community of 3-lakh rickshaw-pullers is gradually gearing up for a big battle after a court order three years ago that banned them from plying on some of the city’s bigger roads. The Rickshaw Advocacy Group – an informal lobby of uneducated drivers backed by a global support group – is now using international catchphrases like “clean transport” and “global warming” to save their trade.

In the Capital, rickshaws save a million vehicular trips a day, all this without any carbon footprint. “Incredible, isn’t it?” asks Nalin Sinha, who heads the programme of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).

This non-profit has now moved the Supreme Court to overturn a ban on rickshaw-plying. Globally, the International Bicycle Fund, a non-profit that promotes bicycle transportation, is pushing an international rickshaw campaign called Pedicab.

At a time when cycle rickshaws are plying in Oxford, London, Paris and Singapore, it is irrational to simply ban them in Delhi, he argues. Sinha says if streamlined, rickshaws can give India a great opportunity to earn massive carbon credits, which it can use profitably.

How bad are they? In a city where the average ownership of cars is one of the highest, they are seen as a “nuisance”. They come in the way of fast-moving traffic; crawl up dangerously close to pedestrians; and contribute to pile-ups.

“Their hamper traffic flow,” alleges Ram Chander, a policeman in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Their numbers are swelling uncontrollably and road utilisation has blown past the acceptable limit.

“Officially, their permissible number is 99,000,” a spokesperson of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi said. Sinha of the ITDP says the current number hovers around 3-4 lakh.

There are allegations the trade itself has spawned a big mafia. Locally influential individuals own fleets of up to 200 rickshaws and manipulate the trade.

A more serious problem is that rickshaws-drivers, who violate traffic rules all the time, cannot officially be booked. “They come under the ethnic mode of transport,” an MCD official said, requesting not to be quoted because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

“But car and buses violate traffic rules more dangerously,” argues Sinha. More sinned against Experts say the Delhi High Court order banning rickshaws was issued without hearing the rickshaw-pullers’ side of the story.

In its petition before the Supreme Court, the ITDP stated that the court-constituted committee was “by no means a committee of technical experts”. According to Sinha, the government needs to “work out a realistic number (of rickshaws) which is closer to demand”.

It is a popular profession, especially among migrants, because it requires minimal investment, is less strenuous than industrial or construction labour and reasonably well paid. The ban came even as the National Urban Transport Policy as well as the Master Plan of Delhi both recommended promotion of non-motorised transport and segregation of lanes.

Experts feel a blanket ban on rickshaws could spell a crisis by robbing livelihoods. “Chori kar rahe kya (Are we thieves?)” asks Bhatti Yadav, a rickshaw driver from East Delhi.

In any case, Yadav says he doesn’t take the ban seriously.

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City Rickshaws Fight Ban

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