The city’s rickshaw-pullers seem to have got the message even before the state government has made up its mind on phasing out the vehicles. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee met the top cops at Writers' Buildings last week to discuss ways to get the city's traffic moving. One of the measures discussed was banning rickshaws from the thoroughfares. And the owners and pullers of rickshaws admit that there is only one way the slow-moving vehicles can go now — out.
Figures with the Calcutta Police traffic department show that the number of rickshaws on the road have touched an all-time low. “The highwater mark for rickshaws was 1947, when the city had the largest number of these vehicles,” said a Calcutta Police officer. “Today, the number has touched an all-time low.” The two-seater vehicle was imported into the city by the local Chinese population in 1900. Initially, it was used as a private transport.
The number of rickshaw-pullers enrolled with the traffic department stood at 32,595 in 1947. The latest figure is around 1,700. “Most of the pullers seem to have got the message even before we have taken a decision to yank their vehicles off the road,” the officer said.
Though the government's periodic statements against rickshaws have done some harm, the drastic drop in the number of pullers also has “broader sociological implications”, officials feel. The city, they admit, has ceased to be the automatic choice for people from the neighbouring states — particularly Jharkhand and Bihar — looking for a source of income. “Besides, now there are better alternatives to earn money than a gruelling day's labour,” an officer said, explaining the drop in the number of pullers.
The number of vehicles has not witnessed such a sharp fall, though. This figure, which stood at 6,000 in 1947, has fallen to around 5,300. “This number will take some time to drop, as owners do not usually give up their vehicles as long as they are road-worthy,” an officer said. “But very few damaged vehicles are repaired and put back on the road again and, usually, the owners do not bother about renewing the licences once the vehicles become unfit to be plied,” he added.
This self-propelled pruning of rickshaws and pullers will help the government take “tough decisions” on traffic management, say officials.