Walking in the crowded streets of Kolkata it’s easy to realize how messy is the traffic. Since a flock of goats to a bike carrying a piano, everything is allowed. But the most shocking image is the large fleet of hand-pulled rickshaws which still remains in the city.
These light-weight, wooden rickshaws are pulled by skinny, spindly-legged men, often in advanced middle-age and barefoot. It seems Kolkata is bent on burnishing its modern image and banning a potent symbol of India’s colonial past.
Visitors identify the city with the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge and this ancient practice. They regard it as a cultural icon of the city, irrespective of the stories of savagery and cruelty that social critics and activists have attributed to Kolkata’s unbarred use of horsemen rickshaws.
Like tea, cricket and tram the hand-pulled rickshaw is a British heritage in Kolkata’s colonial history. Since the end of the 19th century, hand-pulled rickshaws have been plying the streets of Kolkata, home of nearly 15 million people. They have witnessed to and remained an integral part of Kolkata’s socio-economic evolution for over 100 years.
During my days in Kolkata, I had the chance to talk to a rickshaw-puller about this practice. He kindly argued to me that it was his mean of life and running a rickshaw wasn’t more barbaric than working in the mines, for instance.
Are hand-pulled rickshaws inhumane? The debate is open.