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Topic for Debate
 
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
There has been a recent verdict passed on the eviction of the hand-pulled rickshaws from the streets and by-lanes of the city of joy - Calcutta.

To an outsider, these rickshaws represent the highest form of human indignity, an act of urban atrocity. To the residents of the several neighbourhoods in the city, they assume the safest, extremely convenient, in-expensive, easy, and most ready-to-use mode of commuting short distances, especially during heavy downpours and incessant water-logging.

Unfortunately, the decision took birth at the bureaucrats office with the need to transform the image of the city, and that too from what the so-called westerners perceived the city as: and not from the perspective of the citys indigenous responsibilities. With most of the rickshaw pullers being migrant settlers with no education, the promise of an alternate occupational provision seems spurious. Add to the woes, replacing the non-polluting rickshaws with motorized modes of transport, shall not only pollute the already choking air, but at the same time congest the city already falling short of open-space.

Ironically, today, when world cities like New York are awakening to the virtues of non-motorized and improvised models of the famous rickshaw, Calcutta is all set to put on a mask of an avant garde city by shedding all of its prized cultural possessions.

The discussion is afloat to bring in comments from my fellow Archnet members.
Kush Patel
Responses
 
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Hi Kush,

Jane Jacobs would be appalled at this.

I hope they come back to their senses.
Maria Ayub
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Hi Kush,

That is a wonderful topic. I don't know the exact ruling, but rumour has it that these rickshaws were actually supposed to be replaced by the "cycle-rickshaws" which is actually a good idea.

I don't think that the existing Kolkata rickshaws are a very good idea, basically because you need to do the 'balancing' act while sitting on it as well as while pulling it.
Chitradeep Sengupta
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Hello. Well, an improvised design of the rickshaw could definitely be the one where the hand as a lever is replaced by the pedal and the chain of the cycle. As long as the same remains a non-motorized unit, and definitely doesn't get replaced by what is being contempleted, the infamous auto-rickshaw.

But what emerges more strongly as a point of debate here is what should constitute the image of a city. What is this impulse behind quickly acquiring a new face? I personally feel that the way Shanghai is headed is nothing but a disaster. This chinese city had, until about a couple of months back, a wonderful transportation system based on the bicycle. Unfortunately now the city has banned bicycle transportation in many public areas, only to give way to more and more motorized traffic.

All this simply hints at the excess of capitalism that many Asian cities are slowly being drawn to. The so-called West may have gone through it, but that doesn't mean every part of the globe too should mimic it.

Please comment.
Kush Patel
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Hi Kush,

I think that a better process would have been to gradually introduce 'cycle-rickshaws'. I don't think much expense would have happened.

Maybe an improved 'cycle-rickshaw' with both its rear wheels being driven by the pedal, probably designed by any decent engineer, or maybe we architects could have easily done it. Right now, only one wheel gets driven by the pedal, so it is eccentric loading & difficulty in driving the cycle rickshaw.
Chitradeep Sengupta
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
I think a bicycle rickshaw is a better option than a motorized one. It would not make life in the city more polluted, and will not erase its symbolic urban presence.

From what I have read, Calcutta is quite a historical city, and I have always wanted to go there. It would be a loss to go the way Shanghai is going.

I don't think they have heard of the term "mythical literality". Bernard Lassus wrote about it in the Obligation Of Invention. And it refers to the idea of protecting the acquired because of an ambivalence about changing the norm and later regretting it.

Hopefully this won't be the case if the bicylcle rickshaw, and not the motorized one, comes along.

I can see Shanghai now as another Hong
Kong. Why mimic other cities?
Maria Ayub
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Dear Kush,

I agree that the rickshaws in Kolkata paint a very romantic picture and contribute to the image of the city. I also agree that this is a pollution-free mode of transportation. But, I am more inclined towards the removal of these rickshaws.

I believe that the official reason for removing these rickshaws is that they originated under the British as a means where the locals were made to physically carry around their 'new masters', as a symbol of subjugation. But, I do not think that removal of rickshaws on this basis is justified at all.

Instead, I believe these rickshaw-wallahs make very little when seen in light with amount of labour that goes into physically ferrying a person across a section of the city. While rates of fuel-based vehicles can be regularised on price of the fuel, there is no method to quantify the work of these people in economic terms. And they usually end up getting low fares. We all know that taking a auto is more expensive than taking such a rickshaw to travel. Either a system be put in place so that these people get enough for sustenance, which I do not see happening in the near future, or options like bicycle-rickshaws can be introduced that are at least less physically taxing than the hand rickshaws. Already some useful contributions have made so far in this discussion.

I am more concerned about the view we professionals take on such matters. As a practising conservation architect, I find this very disturbing that instead of using our discretion in what is useful for us and accordingly going for development, we either ape the economically developed nations blindly or in the name of culture, we want to preserve everything the way it is. Both trends are dangerous to society. Culture is a dynamic concept; traditions change with time and evolve continuously for the betterment of humanity, especially at the local level.

Please look at this issue holistically (which is usually difficult for professionals trained in a particular stream) and not romantically. And I am sure we can generate a better image for the city.
Shubhru Gupta
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Absolutely, Shrubhu, I agree that living on excesses of either romanticism or cynicism, can be extremely dangerous. In fact, I am in complete agreement with the replacement of the hand-rickshaw with that of a cycled version.

What I was trying to hint at on a deeper level is that the rate at which most of the cities in the so called developing world are acquiring a pretentious new face, is a little disturbing.

Notwithstanding the mode, nature and historicity of transport being one issue, there are several other fronts as well in which the built environment on the whole, suffers. What is perhaps most severely lacking is accountability, and unless and until that creeps in at the level of governance, the decisions shall always remain indifferent and aloof.
Kush Patel
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
All said and discussed, Calcutta rickshaws are part of the system and urban fabric. In Mumbai [Bombay] they have unique tiffin delivery system even noticed by Harvard; in the same way, Calcutta rickshaws need detailed studies before serious comments. If any of you have plans to be in Calcutta for a week to support joint study to prepare brief to be given to urban authorities, let us form a task force.
Dushyant Nathwani
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
All I can add to this topic is that in Havana, the bicyle rickshaw has been in use for a long time, it is the second option for Cubans after the "camellos" or camel buses. Only residents can ride them, not tourists. In a country where the salaries are so low compared to the rest of the Western world, (a doctor earns approximately $25.00 USD per month, this is not a typo, you heard it right, $25.00 USD), this option for transport is indispensable. A cocotaxi (the motorized two passenger vehicle) is the next step up and is too expensive for most Cubans, this is the one we (visitors) have to ride, otherwise the other options are the Pana-taxis, and the very expensive Gran Tour Taxis (the old American cars from the 50's). Hitch-hiking is fun there, but it best you are in a group.
Maria Ayub
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Dushyant, I'll agree with you. An in depth study needs to be done by professionals (planners, architects, economists, social scientists, etc.) to actually come up with a solution.

I personally think that these rickshaws can be replaced by first introducing te 'cycle-rickshaws' & attracting people, (i.e., the pull factor) rather than stopping them. I doubt that it would happen.
Chitradeep Sengupta
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Jinrichsha was brought to "Calcutta" from Imperial Japan by the English in the 19th century. Before that, kings were carried on "palakhi", carried by two persons. Rickshawala is one person pulling the weight of two or more people, is a far cry for "romantic" ride, unless of course, one is a slave driver. Modern Kolkata is the result of the mob of the English architects earning a living in a sahib's way. Pug-ricksha or bicycle ricksha, both are the remnants of the slavery.

French architect Le Corbusier, after visiting New York, wrote his impressions in When The Cathedrals Were White. He was not impressed with the human habitats stacked high like chicken crates in a chicken factory. Gandhi was not an architect by profession, but he did have the understanding of the freedom of movement in a democratic nation. So, he was for the decentralization of power.

Decentralization not only negates the White House, but also there is no place for the very notion of the centre of focus, whether of art, culture or commerce. In it there would be no need for the young of the third world flocking to the west. No Kolkata, and therefore, no need for the rich to unwittingly or knowingly driving the rickshawala to an early death.

Modern town planning, as envisioned by the architects and their rich clients -- the bureaucrats controlling other peoples' money create the distances to cover that people have to use the various means of transport befitting their socio-economic niche. In a decentralized living, everything would be within one's walking distance and much of the human interaction would be within the perimeters of the hemlet or small community. And, nobody would be displaced and hence feeling compeled to be driven like a slave, and die prematurely.

May your drafting pen be guided to envision a human habitat in which there are no slaves, the slave-drivers existing not.
Shailesh Dave
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Shailesh, I loved your last lines, and I hope we can design so that everything is within walking distance. Subjugation in places like India, died some time back in the late 40s. The British are gone, but what happens is the problem of people leaving their villages without too many options in the urban centers. This is more of a judgement call, and for us to decide it is rather hard. We are not in their shoes. The rickshawalas have the option to stick with it or not. I have paid extra in more than one occassion, for we all know this is hardwork. But I guess people will make their own livelihoods any way they can. Sometimes there is no other option, and so they keep at it... Namaste
Maria Ayub
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
What do rickshawallahs have to say about this? I find it ridiculous that we can ban them without finding an alternative. Yes, I agree that they are exploited -- we are paying far too less for the physical labour that they put in. But what will we achieve by banning them? I am sure they all want to lead better lives, maybe even own cycle rickshaws. But they are not able to do that because they don't have the money for it. Even if we design a cycle rickshaw, they won't be able to afford it.

This is not an architectural problem. It is a socio-economic problem. I think that they should not have been banned without being provided an alternative.

The hand rickshaw is inhuman, but banning as a solution is worse than that!
Vishwanath Kashikar
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
The discussion has arrived at a point where there is a collective agreement to the fact that a non-motorized mode of public transport as the hand-rickshaw should be replaced, if need be, only upon bearing the resulting impact on both the livelihood and future of the traditional pullers, as well as the affect such a move shall have on the built environment.

According to a study by John Whitelegg their blind abolition would add about another 200,000 people to the ranks of those without income and livelihood in the city. The study also comments on the existing tram system of the city that although cash-starved is nonetheless regarded highly because of being a zero-pollution transportation system.

Interestingly, Calcutta's tram, the underground railway, and waterway traffic make it potentially one of the more sustainable cities in the world, but alas! It is about to go the so called Western way of development and in the process destroy its architecture, heritage, and culture, all in the name if an image-change!

Vishwanath's outright rejection of this issue as non-architectural, only goes on to speak about what architects of today, are increasingly being concerned of instead. It is ironic and somewhere hints at the education we receive in architectural schools!

Can somebody throw a fresh light??
Kush Patel
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Very well-put Mr. Kashikar!! Maybe the city bureaucrats can be persuaded to spend their funds on aiding these rickshaw wallahs rather than on some mindless city 'beautification' drive. But ours is a banana republic where people in charge either have vested interests or are too blinded by images of the 'developed' West to really think outside the box.
Shubhru Gupta
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Shubhru,

I think you summarised it quite well. This is why we need technocrats in control of the system, with politicians, at the most giving a helping hand!

But then... let's not dicuss that point. We have to live with it for quite some time.

What we as architects & planners can do instead is find out better alternatives. I personally find 'cycle-rickshaw' pretty handy, useful & fast for short distances. Hand-drawn rickshaws can be phased out slowly. What do you say?
Chitradeep Sengupta
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
The Buddha and his perceptions of the human mind are admired by the western intellectuals, but selectively. One of the ten precepts of the Buddha is: "i shall abstain from the high seat."

To humanize Calcutta, or for that matter any habitat, first one must feel human. In this case, of the four primates, the humans are the only ones who subjugate other humans. The notion of one up-ness is not found in other creatures. Even the chest thumping big gorilla picks berries for himself and makes his own bed. So do those humans who are cognizant of their self-nature.

All other species live alike, on equal footing. And yet, no two dens of bears, nor two nests of the birds of the feather, who flock together, are alike. But the modern city builders churn out the pre-fabricated forms of housing for those dwellers that have no say. This, too, is a modern trait of the mechanical kind, arising from the notion of monopoly. In this game of sameness the architects have joined last. So now, we have people wearing the pre-fabricated clothes, live, work, and eat in pre-fabricated buildings; go to pre-assigned (promoted) places, study subjects that have questions and answers forethought.

So, to Maria Ayub I say that whether or not others join you in designing and building homes for the real human beings, you must go on, in Tagore's words: 'Go alone, go alone, go alone; when no one heeds your call, go alone.' Sit with them, know them and their needs, and engage them in building their homes. When building the first suspension bridge, I had lots of questions, and no bridge builders I approached would reveal his 'trade secret.' But then, the bridge building is not 'taught' in schools. So I observed that the work teaches itself.

When one really needs to know something, then is not afraid to find out. What I build is a five dimensional art work. It is a bridge when crossing the creek; it blends with the landscape; it puts me on equal footing with the primitive people, who built suspension bridges, without the outside help. And, with the children of my friends, when we are on the bridge, it moves up and down like a titter totter.

Modern education limits one's ability to relate to things and beings only in a learnt way. And a wholesome human being is more than a credential.
Shailesh Dave
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Shailesh,

You said it well; and yes, I am looking at bridges for my thesis project! My God, we have connected...

Found one that I like, but it cost a bundle, and I don't know where to find the funds to get it, and then take it to Cuba.

I must go on. I don't want people to swing from a rope to get to the other side, people don't have Tarzan attributes, but must find a way that is more "pedestrian friendly".

Life must go on, and is not merely credentials hanging on a wall.

Too easy, isn't it?

My best to all,
Maria Ayub
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
There is a great distinction in development of architecture that we need to note. It is a profession that forgives no one and allows nothing to be forgotten. We have to remember that we influence the lives of everyone -- be they the rickshaw wallahs, or people hanging on to threadbare rope bridges. We as architects have as much of an influence in our minds by political visions as that of anything else.

Considering that we are discussing Calcutta and Cuba, both places of Communist power... I find this a discussion that is quite the mind-boggler. Should this even be happening in either places? Isn't it against the base principles of Marx?

This is where I believe that only two things work, politically and economically, as the best combination, but no political entity or person will ever choose that path. Or if they say they do, they will deviate way too far from it to allow it to remain true.

I believe in Socialism as an economic system versus Capitalism, and Democracy over Communism.

This way the people's interests are taken care of both ways. But unfortunately, in a communist state it is -- communism with socialism -- allowing little scope for the worker to express his views.

In a democratic state, it is worse: capitalism controlling democracy... Basically, they buy off the people for God's sake. It's the American way!!!

Then, the third option, India. They can't make up their minds with either of the combinations but for some reason, they will never choose the right one. They choose to run only a capitalistic society of democratically elected people who rule like communists. Where that is going is beyond my comprehension... But by some unimaginable power, it's still working.

I was just wondering when we are in a situation that puts us in control of so many facets of life, why don't we just become politicians too??? Sad thought, but then we can at least control things to get our visions to become reality.

As far as the problem goes, though, we need to get the rickshaw wallahs to let us know what they actually need. And how they would like their lives to be improved. Without that we don't have a position to argue!!!

So, Kush, if you really need to take this up, try the democratic way, and the socialistic way... It will help. Giving the community to choose their future is also a good idea. Find out what the people will be able to pay and give them a set of options that become affordable Give them some choices that are affordable. Maybe they will be able to pick out one that can still work and save the rickshaw wallahs.
Nirup Jayanth
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
A socialist democracy is the best way.

At least people won't be going bankrupt trying to pay their medical bills like it happens in this country, and unfortunately, this is a national disgrace in America.

I was seeing 60 minutes, a news program, where tonight, they had Americans going all the way to India and Thailand to get affordable medical care, and it cost, in the case of India, one-tenth when compared to the US.

But let's stick to architecture. The rickshawallas will know what to do when they see other options in their lives.
Unless, that is, they still feel subjugated to something or someone. (I honestly doubt it.)

It is the problem of too many people and few opportunities.

Namaste and my best to all,
Maria Ayub
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
While Shailesh, Nirup & Maria are exchanging notes on democracy, socialism, etc., I would like to make a humble submission.

Long time back in Nagpur I saw rickshaws driven by electric motors, which were in turn charged by small dynamos run by the front wheel of the rickshaws. The electricity generated is with similar technique as the one used for head lights for bicycles. Since I was too young that time, I kept on wondering about it. (I still do, could not figure out about its acceleration & de-celeration).

I still haven't seen them in Delhi (after a whole 20-25 years). In fact, head lights on bicycles I saw in Delhi was only recently. I was wondering if anyone from Nagpur or nearby, or stays in a place that has 'motorised' rickshaws knows about their working, especially. How does that little dynamo generate so much electricity?
Chitradeep Sengupta
Humanizing the city: Rickshaws in Calcutta
Dear All, If I may make a suggestion? From what I have read about Chinese rickshaw pullers (of the original two-wheel type), the work was so hard that in a few years they died of overwork and that is inhuman and inhumane.

Alternatively, either a four-wheel rickshaw with a tandem bicycle chain drive and two people peddling may be a viable and pollution-free solution. Or, an electric motor and battery charging overnight as for fork-lift trucks,etc.

I put forward the thought of doubling-up the peddlers, because in Britain in the past it was usual for coaches with say two horses, to hire an extra two horses to pull the coach up a hill. So if the work of peddling was divided by two then this may reduce the work-load to a reasonably humane level.

Another thought:- "Regular routes for rickshaw trains", so multiple peddle-power rickshaws could hook up to any passing "motorised rickshaw tractor" on main roads and then unhook to peddle along the smaller roads. :)))
Frank John Snelling
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