Bound in books and frozen in filmi frames, the ubiquitous hand-pulled rickshaw is on its last legs after a 150-year run.
'We have decided to do away with the hand-pulled rickshaws in the next three to four months,' announced chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, a few minutes after hoisting the flag on Independence Day.
'The sight of a human pulling other humans on his shoulders for a pittance does not enhance Calcutta's image. So, we have decided' taana (hand-pulled) rickshaws must go. After all, it is doing nothing for Calcutta's image.'
Determined to package Calcutta as an international centre of business, art and culture, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government has embarked on a grand programme seeking to blot out certain stereotypes that have made the city an international metaphor for squalor and slow-track growth.
'Certain people in the West look at us that way' They associate rickshaws, beggars and lepers with our city, but the truth is that Calcutta is vastly different from that flawed notion,' said the chief minister.
Echoing him, mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya added: 'Rickshaw-pulling for a living is barbaric. It must stop.'
The hand-pulled rickshaw in Calcutta can be traced back to the late 19th Century, when Chinese traders used them to ferry goods. In 1919, the British administration permitted these rickshaws to carry passengers.
But the fadeout of the rickshaw puller ' immortalised in Do Beegha Zameen and then controversially spotlighted as the 'human horse' in City of Joy ' could coincide with a flood of the autorickshawallah.
Providing an alternative source of livelihood for about 24,000 rickshaw-pullers would be a major task for the government, Bhattacharjee had admitted on Monday.
'We have to organise money, training and new jobs for them,' he had said.
Transport minister Subhas Chakraborty on Tuesday announced his plans to fill in the blank ' introduce a few thousand polluting, traffic-stopping autorickshaws in place of the hand-pulled rickshaw.
'Our plan is to train and engage the taana rickshaw-puller in driving autorickshaws. We hope to help them obtain gas-powered (LPG) autorickshaws,' claimed Chakraborty.
The chief minister, on his part, had said that he was discussing the matter of an alternative mode of cheap transport with the transport department, the city police commissioner, the mayor and the finance department. 'The alternative could be autorickshaws or cycle-rickshaws,' said Bhattacharjee.
State CPM secretary Anil Biswas has also pledged the party's support for the government move, saying Calcutta would be rid of the taana rickshaw before the end of 2005.
'The decision comes a little late in the day, but it will now be fully implemented,' stressed Biswas.
The All Bengal Rickshaw Union, meanwhile, has expressed its displeasure with the government's final phase-out decision and threatened to launch an agitation if it was not consulted on providing alternative livelihood to the rickshaw-pullers.