Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Roaring Rickshaw Rides

Sights, sounds and smells provide important stimuli for evoking memories. The mention of the word ‘rickshaw’ would probably evoke images which are a combination of all three, and not necessarily pleasant, either!

The mere mention of the word, ‘rickshaw’, calls to mind the frequent trips to Resham Gali in search of exquisite silks in the scorching heat of many an enduring summer. Snaking through narrow streets, the adventurous bumpy air-conditioned ride provided a unique experience combining jarring sounds, soot and smoke for me, while the environmentalists struggled to make sense of some grave nightmares.

The word "Rickshaw" originates from the Japanese word jinrikisha which literally means "human-powered vehicle". Runner-pulled rickshaws have been popular as a mode of transport for the elite for centuries. In south Asia, however, it slowly became the preferred mode of travel for the economically disadvantaged sections of societies due to its affordability and point-to-point accessibility. In Asian countries, hand-pulled rickshaws have long been replaced by cycle rickshaws, and recently with auto rickshaws. Hand-pulled rickshaws were officially outlawed in Pakistan in the late 50s and cycle rickshaws in the last decade, but Qingqi, the Chinese motorbike rickshaw, and auto rickshaw is still popular for travelling short distances in some cities of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

The auto rickshaws of these South Asian countries represent a unique culture of their own with colorful, intricate designs painted on the outside of the body while some even have verses written on them depicting the dreams and aspirations of their owners. It is indeed an entertaining experience to read the humorous modified quotes, but also humbling to learn about the sad reality of a huge section of society mired in poverty and deprivation and struggling to survive.

The advantage of affordability has so far been the most persistent reason for sustenance of this mode of transport. There is usually a fixed fare for the first mile and then a per mile fare according to the distance travelled. For many poor people in India and Pakistan, it is their only means of livelihood and for others, the only affordable means of travel. In Dhaka, which is popularly known as the “Rickshaw capital of the world’ the pullers have mostly migrated from the famine-affected areas in search of an opportunity requiring relatively little investment. In India, most of these drivers originate from Bihar which is considered to be one of its poorest states. A 2008 article by Calvin Trillin in The National Geographic details how Kolkata rickshaw-pullers serve "just a notch above poor" who travel short distances and use it as a n ambulance service, for shopping, for sending their children to school, and for transporting goods for their businesses.

While the hand-pulled and the cycle-pulled rickshaws did not have any environmental hazards, the auto rickshaw has evoked much controversy over the years, prompting criticism, legislation and resulting efforts by world environmental protection enthusiasts, governments and aid agencies, who consider it important to reduce the negative effects of this otherwise popular mode of transport while retaining the livelihood of those who have no other alternative, plus the convenience factor of easy accessibility for a large numbers of travelers.

Research has shown that the two-stroke engine powered rickshaws emit excessive smoke, release un-burnt hydrocarbons and produce an uncomfortable level of noise. Also, the unchecked usage of substandard lubricant and its direct mixing with gasoline has made the two-stroke rickshaws a huge environmental hazard. The drivers are also inclined to remove silencers to accommodate emission of un-burnt oil, and that increases noise pollution. Moreover, overloading results in the slow speed at which rickshaws move and adds to the traffic mess that our cities already have enough trouble sorting out.

A major health concern regarding rickshaw drivers is the effects of smoke inhalation as the rickshaw is open on all sides and burning eyes, respiratory disorders and nausea are common ailments among them. Their hearing is also affected with continuous exposure to the high noise level, but their economic situation forces them to continue working in hazardous conditions. The riders too suffer similar symptoms, albeit to a lesser degree, as they are exposed for a relatively shorter time. These are issues the poorer societies of the world learn to live with because for them the quality of life is not a priority – survival is.

Various initiatives have been undertaken by governments in this regard. Many a times, bans have been announced but not seen through because the issue of rehabilitating a large number of rickshaw owners and drivers has been a major concern due to economic restraints. Other options have been explored with World Agencies playing a major role. Environment Canada has helped the Pakistan Government in implementing projects in Lahore, Karachi and Quetta with engine technology that uses Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) instead of petrol in the two-stroke engines, in an effort to combat environmental pollution. As a consequence, CNG Rickshaws replaced petrol and diesel-powered rickshaws in large numbers in Pakistani cities. The CNG rickshaws emit much less smoke, and the low cost of CNG makes this an attractive option since the upward trend of oil prices remains a stark reality and serious consideration for consumers. The owners are able to recover the cost of converting to CNG by raising the rent that the drivers pay. The drivers, in turn, are willing to accept that because the turnover is still more than from running the rickshaws on diesel or petrol. Recently, the Punjab government in Pakistan has also reached an agreement with China to replace inter-city buses with CNG buses and by 2011 there would not be any diesel buses.

When the government announced the ban on two-stroke rickshaws in Lahore in 2003 to phase out two-stroke rickshaws by 2007, there was a strong protest from the people as 700,000 people were estimated to be earning their living by the city’s 60,000 two-stroke rickshaws and it was feared that their families would starve if two-stroke rickshaws were banned because they did not have enough money to buy four-stroke rickshaws. Following the decision of the ban, however, the government set up a Rs 1 billion fund to give people loans to purchase four-stroke CNG rickshaws. In 2004, the Punjab government also imposed a ban on manufacturing, sale and registration of two-stroke rickshaws as it was estimated that almost 70% air pollution in Lahore and a major chunk of noise pollution on the streets was contributed by the two-stroke rickshaws.

In Bangladesh, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Government of Bangladesh and the Rupantarita Prakritik Gas Co. Ltd, worked together in converting rickshaw engines to run on compressed natural gas (CNG). The Canadian agency, Environment Canada, provided technical support. In Dhaka, The idea of CNG conversions is not new, and has been around since the early 1980s, but it was actually around 2001 that a large scale switch over was finally seen due to wider acceptance of the economical and safe usage of CNG.

In 1998, when the government acknowledged the high levels of pollution in Dehli, and the Indian Supreme Court ordered the government to implement CNG fuel for public transport in an effort to bring down the high pollution levels, a dramatic improvement was seen within a short period of time. In addition to the CNG-powered rickshaws, some Indian companies have also introduced electric-powered three-wheelers. However, all these vehicles are expensive, and may only be used where rickshaws are used to provide transportation to cover the last mile or kilometer.

The rickshaw culture of South Asia is an enduring feature that still holds an important place in people’s lives, and if steps are taken to bring down its hazardous effects, the adventurous bumpy ride can continue to retain its usefulness for the sections that most need it.

A version of this article was published in SouthAsia Magazine, Nov, 09.

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