While there has been some major breakthroughs as a result of our campaign on behalf of street vendors, the cycle rickshaw sector stays caught in a stalemate. Confiscation and seizure of rickshaws by the police in collaboration with the municipal staff continues unabated. Bribes, beatings, and extortion have not stopped. Even our petition to the High Court, demanding that the new policy announced by the Prime Minister be implemented, has not made much headway. One important reason for this stalemate is that the government policies have created powerful vested interests, not only among the police and corporation officials who benefit from the restrictions imposed on the rickshaw sector, but also among a section of rickshaw operators who are derisively called as thekedars. The following account provides a glimpse into the role of rickshaw fleet owners, the pressures under which they function, and how a few among them have been converted into middlemen or dalaals between the police, corporation officials and the ordinary rickshaw owners and pullers. It also shows the tremendous grit and entrepreneurial spirit of even the poor and illiterate in India. It reveals their desire for upward mobility and their initiative in exploring all possible avenues for moving out of poverty despite all the hurdles placed in their way by the government. Their fairly typical life stories also provide insights into how a very socialist or pro-poor sounding slogan and policy is actually designed to be an instrument of extortion.
One of the most absurd restrictions imposed by the government on the rickshaw sector is that a person cannot own more than one cycle rickshaw in Delhi. Anyone can own a fleet of cars, trucks, or even aeroplanes. However, possessing more than one cycle rickshaw has been treated as an offence, which is punishable with the confiscation and destruction of the vehicle. The law also stipulates that the owner must also be the puller of the rickshaw. If someone other than the licensed owner is found plying the vehicle, it is liable to confiscation. A whole regime of draconian restrictions on owning more than one rickshaw are justified in the name of preventing the exploitation of poor rickshaw pullers at the hands of “rich contractors”, who the police and corporation employees refer to as the “rickshaw mafia.” This is a classic example of hating those whom you exploit most. These are the very people from whom the corporation and police employees collect hefty bribes, and yet they are made targets of a systematic defamation campaign.
Even if one owns 200 rickshaws calculated at an average Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,000 per new rickshaw or Rs 1,500 for a second-hand rickshaw, it represents an investment of no more than four lakh rupees counting both old and new vehicles. By enacting a law, which prohibits a person from owning more than one rickshaw, the government has, in fact, legislated that a poor person has no right to move out of the poverty trap. It in effect means that a person who begins his life as a puller should never get to own assets of more than Rs 3,500. This amounts to using the might of the State to crush people’s entrepreneurial spirit and desire for upward mobility. All this when restrictive laws such as the Anti-Monopolies Act for the corporate sector have been scrapped and we are supposed to be liberalising our economy.
Contrary to the myth propagated by the officialdom that rickshaw fleet owners represent an exploitative class of people, with irreconcilable conflict of interests between them and the pullers, a vast majority of contractors have emerged out of the ranks of rickshaw mechanics and pullers and operate under conditions of great insecurity. No more than a dozen would qualify to be called the so-called rickshaw mafia. Even this group has come to acquire a stronghold over the trade only because they act as middlemen between the police, the licensing authorities, and the ordinary rickshaw operator. We even found cases of policemen or their close relatives owning large benami rickshaw fleets. Of the contractors we interviewed in 2001, 24 began their earning life as pullers or roadside rickshaw mechanics. Another seven began as petty vendors or unskilled labourers. Most of them belong to families of marginal farmers who migrated to Delhi in search of daily wages. They entered this trade by purchasing a couple of second-hand rickshaws with their modest savings and over the years, built small or big fleets. Only four out of the 36 whom we interviewed are from lower middle class families who entered this profession because they failed to get any jobs after they completed their intermediate or graduation. Instead of joining the ranks of the educated unemployed, they got modest amounts of money from their families to invest in a few rickshaws and slowly added more over the years. However, despite all the payoffs, almost all have lost as many rickshaws in municipal raids as they own today.
The contractors manage their big or small rickshaw fleets from their makeshift stands, which they have made by occupying a piece of public land and pavements, with very little protection from the elements. These spots are used for servicing and repairing rickshaws as well as parking the vehicles at night. A large proportion of rickshaw pullers sleep at these stands because as seasonal migrants they cannot afford to pay the prevalent high rents for living space even in Delhi’s slums. This use of public space makes the fleet owners additionally vulnerable to extortion. The amount of monthly payments that they have to cough up to the police and municipality depends on the number of rickshaws they own and the amount of public space they occupy. Given the exorbitant land prices in Delhi, it is impractical to expect them to operate their trade from a personally owned piece of land as this would make their trade altogether unviable.
Even after paying bribes, they do not have any security. The threat of eviction from these roadside spaces forever hangs like a sword on their heads. In 1993, the Rajdhani Cycle Rickshaw Operators Union felt compelled to file a petition in the Delhi High Court to demand that the MCD should be directed to allocate rickshaw stands or halting points. The Court directed that 234 stands be allocated for the then sanctioned quota of 20,000 rickshaws in Delhi. But these orders were never implemented. In 1998, the Rickshaw Operators Union filed yet another petition demanding implementation of the Court orders as well as increase in the number of stands to at least 900, since the sanctioned quota for rickshaws was enhanced to 99,000 that year. Even this number is highly inadequate since the number of rickshaws plying in Delhi is believed to be five to six lakhs, counting those used for carrying passengers as well as those that ferry goods or are used for garbage collection.
On February 27, 2001, Justice Sareen appointed a Committee with the Police Commissioner Traffic as its member, ordering that within four months, these stands should become operational. Only 25 stands have been earmarked by the MCD, that too after years of constant pleas by the rickshaw operators. Even out of these 25, some cannot be used because they fall in zones declared “No Entry” for rickshaws.
The life stories of Shyam* from Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, Imtiaz Mohammad* operating in Central Delhi, Mohammad Maqbool* of Sarai Kale Khan and Surjeet Singh* from West Delhi are fairly typical of contractors operating in this trade. Their accounts also give us an idea of the incomes generated from rickshaw hiring as well as the risks involved in this trade.