|The Real Heroes of Bangladesh|
|By Thomas Wipperman|
|Tuesday, 07 August 2007|
For the few foreign tourists who stop in Bangladesh, the colour and vitality of the country’s rickshaws are one of the main attractions. The appeal of taking a ride amongst the bustling streets of Dhaka, flamboyantly regaled in bright pinks, yellows and greens, matches desires to see the Sundarbans or the tea estates of Sylhet.
The omnipresent rickshaw is not just a mode of transport, but really, the icon of a nation. And so it comes as a great surprise to find groups campaigning for rickshaws to be banned. Traffic planners want to remove them from the roads, and the pullers themselves consider their job to be the lowest of the low.
The wheels that keep the poor moving
Yet all these attitudes neglect the real value of rickshaws as a cultural, economic and social institution, and misunderstand the concepts of exploitation and abuse. Rickshaws are crucial to Bangladesh’s development, a source of income to millions of people. Their pullers should be respected and admired, not vilified, abused and dismissed. [A follow-up essay offers a proposal to lift them out of poverty. Read it here.]
There are two million people employed as rickshaw pullers across Bangladesh, with Dhaka containing 27 percent of all rickshaws in the country, at around 400,000. 12 million people depend indirectly on the rickshaw pulling trade for their livelihoods. 20 percent of the population of Dhaka rely on rickshaws: together the pullers in the capital earn two billion Taka a month.
Rickshaws are a vital piece of the economic fabric of the poor. They are the only form of transport that many of the poorest can afford, and hence they are significant in ensuring that the informal economy continues to function. But they also serve richer citizens and maintain the circulation of labour in the formal economy too. In more rural locations and the tight roads of the slums, they are the only feasible transport. They continue plying even during moderate floods.
Usage figures reflect all this. 53 percent of journeys in Dhaka are made on a rickshaw. This is seven million journeys, covering 29 million kilometres every day. This is twice the total distance covered daily by the London Underground network. They carry more passenger per vehicle, using road space half that of a car. They leave behind no emissions. .
The campaign against rickshaws
Campaigners against rickshaws overlook the economic, social, and environmental benefits, and put forth two main lines of argument.
The first is that they cause traffic congestion . It is typical of the middle and upper classes around the world to blame negative urban conditions on the poor, who have no voice or platform to defend themselves. The reality is different: clearing rickshaws from the roads will simply result in buses replacing rickshaws to provide the small cheap journeys around town. Pollution will worsen quickly, and millions would see their livelihoods severely affected. There can be no justification on congestion grounds to remove rickshaws: cars carrying one or two people are the predominant cause of these problems, driven and owned by the wealthy and powerful.
The second argument is that the act of pulling another person on a rickshaw is exploitative. This has been mobilised in Kolkata already to remove hand-pulled rickshaws from that city. While pulling rickshaws by hand is gruelling, cycle rickshaws are better. Most humans must labour in some way, and there is pride in doing honest work to earn a living. Rickshaw pullers work very hard, but they are working to provide for themselves and their families, and they should be supported.
The real bases of exploitation
This argument is driven by the immediacy of the relationship between the puller and the pulled: no one advocates that the bus driver or aeroplane pilot is also been exploited. The overriding reason is the energy that the puller must exert to move the passengers’ weight. Yet this is not an exploitative relationship per se. Campaigns that promote the idea of rickshaws as exploitative highlight only one aspect of the work, confusing the moral questions of labour type with the economic conditions of the labour process.
Morally, we should see no concern in the existence of rickshaw pulling as a profession. The moral issue surrounds the question as to why rickshaw pullers come to do this job, what structures and social relations are forcing people to take this work, and which members of society are pullers and which are pulled. This is where the exploitation of rickshaws emerges, in the conditions of their labour.
The way that users treat rickshaw pullers, the fares that can be charged, the housing that pullers have, the costs of rickshaw rents, their relationship with the police, the attitude of policy makers –- these, and not the act of pulling, are the conduits through which exploitation takes place. Combined, these have had the effect to prescribe rickshaw pulling as a low-status, ill-respected activity that must be replaced by other means, and one from which pullers seek to ‘escape’ as soon as possible.
Yet how many readers of this article have actually tried to pull a rickshaw, to negotiate the chaotic traffic of Dhaka, or suck up the black fumes of bus exhausts, to haggle with every passenger for a few more Taka and then carrying them safely and swiftly to their destination? Pulling a rickshaw is a profession that must be respected. Those that pull us about the city are a crucial part of the Bangladeshi economy, a community of hardworking men providing for their families and a bright cultural icon of the country. The spurious arguments that undermine the status of the pullers and the importance of the job must stop. The effort instead needs to be on devising ways to reward their work justly, recognising their cultural and economic role, and the value of their honest, hard labour. These everyday heroes have the right to work and to drive with dignity.
Editor's Note: This article is the first of a series of two articles on the importance of rickshaws, the need to put policy focus on rickshaw-pullers as an extremely marginalized group, and ways to improve their socio-economic condition and dignity. An earlier version of this essay, titled "Driving with Dignity," appeared in The New Age, 4 June 2007. Read the other article: Pulling Rickshaws Out of Poverty.