Rupam, an educated youth from the fringes of Dhaka was faced with the Shakespearian dilemma, – to do or not to do. He had an offer to drive a cycle rickshaw to earn a living after having failed to land a job.
Gnawing familial pressure and the guilt of not being able to get proper employment after his parents spent money on his education made him desperate.
Resolutely, Rupam decided to pedal his way out of this predicament. Riding his beautifully decked rickshaw, Rupam ferries passengers all over Dhaka and is determined to save enough money for setting up a shop of his own in due time. He is one of the innumerable rickshaw drivers’ in Dhaka -the rickshaw capital of the world.
Unlike Rupam, the Sapan Miahs’ and Mutaur Hossains’ are uneducated and choose to drive rickshaws to support their families. They migrate from places Gaibantha, Saidabad, Jatrabari, and Maniknagar to Dhaka in search of better-earning opportunities.
The roads of Bangladesh, especially Dhaka are dotted with rickshaws that are adorned with motifs ranging from flowers, animals, birds to village scenes, mosques, famous pieces of architecture like the Taj Mahal, and of course movie stars. The shapes and designs often remind of palanquins that predated rickshaws. The cluster of rickshaws symbolizes the socio-economic character of the city and country in general. The tapestry of myriad emotions linked to rickshaws and their drivers create a distinctive motif on their own.
Destiny drives the rickshaw drivers (often referred to as rickshaw shramik in Bangla), to choose this as a profession. Their invaluable contribution to ferrying passengers across the length and breadth of the city and towns of Bangladesh has never been truly appreciated. Rickshaws are the most preferred means of transport for older people and school-college going boys and girls of Dhaka city. For the statistically inclined readers, it is estimated that there are close to five lakh rickshaws in Dhaka alone and among them only around eighty thousand are licensed rickshaws.
It is a challenge for rickshaw drivers to ply their trade in the already severely congested roads of Dhaka. The government has decided to ban rickshaws on certain roads of Dhaka so as to bring about road discipline and open up roads for vehicular traffic to move freely. There is a growing feeling among city residents that the number of rickshaws plying on the roads of Dhaka has choked the city to a large extent. Still, rickshaws and rickshaw drivers are a necessity that the citizens can’t deny.
Let us take a closer look at these rickshaw-sharmiks’ who leave their families and loved ones behind to come to the city in search of better-earning opportunities. A lot of these drivers have nothing to do at home once the harvest season is over and the pangs of hunger and the dream of a better life goad them to seek out rickshaw driving as an option to pursue their dreams.
Once in the city, they seek out rickshaw garages that hire out rickshaws on a shift basis to individuals. The shifts start from 6 AM, 2 PM and 10 PM. There are a limited number of people opting for the night shift but the day shifts have two people driving one rickshaw. Some simple number-crunching shows us that with an average of 4 dependents for each rickshaw driver an estimated 20 lakh people depend on rickshaws for survival. That is a mind-numbing number and becomes a real area of concern in the backdrop of proposed plans by the government to do away with rickshaws altogether.
How do these drivers survive? Across Dhaka there exist many rickshaw messes that house around 100 rickshaw drivers on a daily basis. The living conditions are pathetic. People coming from Gaibantha settle in a mess in the Dharmia locality and it has one tubewell and one toilet for catering to these people. The ghetto type living conditions are unhygienic and people live crammed in makeshift godowns and at the bottom of staircases. They need to pay on a daily basis, anything between BDT 55 and 60.
Each driver rides out on his designated rickshaw every day-shift and is on the lookout for passengers needed to be transported. The rising cost of living sometimes makes rickshaw shramiks overcharge, much to the indignation of passengers. However, most people empathize with them and pay them their due fare.
Meals during lunchtime are from floating hotels on pavements, run by ladies commuting from suburbs of the city carrying food in large containers. A full meal costs around 25 to 30 BDT. rickshaw-shramiks stretch out on their wheeled palanquins when the going gets tough and they need to rest. There is no designated toilet or urinal for use by these people and they often need to relieve themselves in the open, much to the consternation of passersby and citizens in general.
Not everything about rickshaws and their drivers is difficult. There is a lot to cheer about the achievements and advances made by these shramiks. People linked to the rickshaw industry have many tales to narrate about the heights they have reached, creating benchmarks for others to emulate.
There is Rashid, who at the age of 50, has devoted the last 40 years of life in beautifying the chassis of rickshaws, based on individual tastes and choices of rickshaw owners. The images created by Rashid are like moving storyboards acting as a mobile canvas for artistic expression. Most people would not know about the form of the rickshaw in which they are traveling; few can differentiate between a Comilla chassis and a Dhaka chassis. People like Rashid craft and create such rickshaws. Their skill and dedication help shape such beautiful rickshaws that traverse the roads of Bangladesh.
Rashid has considerable expertise in the field and often teaches his skills to children who are willing to learn. As with most shramiks in this industry, Rashid too wants his children to get educated and have a better life.
Aasia begum’s story is another remarkable tale. Having independently ventured into the male-dominated rickshaw industry, Aasia has made a mark for herself. Her achievements are documented through a video on youtube. Starting out as domestic help, she struggled to bring up her two daughters and a son as her husband was lazy and did not like to work, instead, he took away all of Aasia’s money. It was then that she decided to buy two second-hand rickshaws through help from an NGO. Slowly things started to look up and now she is the proud owner of around 12 rickshaws.
People employing labor as rickshaw shramiks are no different from the other people who take up different jobs to make a living. May their efforts be lauded and let all concerned help them to drive into a bright future.