Wednesday, February 15, 2006 (Kolkata): West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya had said that Kolkata’s hand-pulled rickshaws will soon go off the streets. He had made the announcement on Independence Day last year. But six months on, the city’s 6000-odd rickshaws, which the Chief Minister called symbols of inhumanity, are still around.
Ever since the announcement, over 18,000 rickshaw pullers in the city have been plying their trade with a Damocles’ sword hanging over their heads, wondering when the police crackdown will come."For six months we have been worrying about when the ban will come," said Mohammed Akhtar, a rickshaw puller."We don’t know when they will ban us. We are afraid," added another rickshaw-puller. Choosing an alternative —While the rickshaw-pullers are living in the shadow of the ban, the government is facing a dilemma of its own.Two cycle-rickshaws have been short-listed as alternatives but both are still a long way from getting the government nod. The first alternative is a cycle rickshaw model called Dipvahan, which is designed by an IIT Guwahati scientist. It is made of a jute composite, is rustproof and costs Rs 12,000. West Bengal’s agriculture department has bought a dozen of these models for farmers in North Bengal where they are now getting something of a test run. Giving Dipvahan tough competition is Parthasarathy, designed by scientists of the Occupational Health Research Centre at Kolkata. Made mostly with steel pipes, it costs Rs 7000 and, instead of one chain as in existing cycle rickshaws, Parthasarathy has three chains and is much easier to drive. "The chief minister’s office said they wanted to introduce 100 of these rickshaws by January 26 but we didn’t have the patent then. Now it is ready," said Dr A R Chowdhury, Occupational Health Research Centre. Congestion issues — The debate, however, is not just on which model to take. The Kolkata Police has reservations about allowing cycle-rickshaws within city limits. "If we allow cycle-rickshaws to come in the middle of the city, then it will cause tremendous traffic congestion. It will be very difficult to control. As it is, it’s very difficult. It will add to the trouble," said Prasun Mukherjee, Commissioner of Police, Kolkata. It seems that Buddhadev Bhattacharya may want to bring the curtains down on the hand-pulled rickshaw but he has miles to go before he can write their final obit.