One lot of people who welcome the No Entry signs on one-way roads are the drivers of rickshaws – both cycle rickshaws and pedicabs (hand-pulled rickshaws). The restriction does not apply to them as their vehicles are not motorised, and these roads that other vehicles cannot enter are a lifeline for them, providing the better part of their livelihood. New No Entry signs come up each day, thanks to the Chennai Metro Rail work in progress. While these signs are greeted with irritation or resignation by other road users they cause the rickshaw drivers’ faces to light up.
These rickshaws are all around us, a part of Chennai city, even if we don’t pay special attention to them.
Raja (51) has been in service for 25 years, pulling a rickshaw near Chennai Central railway station. “When I entered this profession there were more than 60 rickshaw pullers in the station, but now fewer that 16 survive. The reluctance of the public to use rickshaws and the increasing number of autos are destroying our livelihood. We depend on short distance passengers, and some foreigners. Some passengers who arrive by train and plan to stay at the nearest lodges approach us. Our lives continue like this, depending only on train passengers.”
Gunasekar, with 32 years in the profession, is disappointed that no government does anything for them. “They are not even willing to enrol us as unorganised workers. Earlier rickshaw pulling was respectable work. But now there is no income and no respect for us, but we keep on at this profession because we don’t know anything else. We depend on foreign passengers and others who find it interesting to ride in a rickshaw.” He says some rickshaw pullers do loading and unloading trips for businesses in and around Parry’s Corner where motor vehicles are not permitted by the traffic police. “These narrow lanes and one-way roads where motor vehicles are not allowed, are a boon for us. The traffic police permit us on these roads on compassionate grounds. It benefits us and also old or sick people who are in no condition to walk through those narrow lanes.”
He recollects. “In the 1980s the city had more than 20,000 cycle rickshaws. In early 2000 it was below 10,000. In another five years rickshaws will be seen only in museums. We realise that today the public wants fast travel. We would like to shift to motor rickshaws, but it is not affordable. The government should consider our situation and provide long-term loans to purchase motor rickshaws.
He makes an interesting point, “We expect welfare schemes from this government because MGR had a soft corner for rickshaw pullers. In fact he won the best award for his film Rickshawkaran, in 1972.”