Have you used Hand Pulled Rickshaws of Kolkata ?

During 2005- 2006, there was this announcement by West Bengal government that hand pulled rickshaws of Kolkata would be banned with the promise that the rickshaw pullers would be rehabilitated. The ban never materialized; protests from these hand rickshaw pullers being the main reason.

My Only Experience with Hand Pulled Rickshaws of Kolkata

I took my one and only ride in tana rickshaw in 2013 when I visited Kolkata. (Tana in Bengali means pulled, hence the name tana rickshaw in Kolkata) Very hesitantly I hired one hand pulled rickshaw and didn’t have the heart to negotiate the price quoted by him. I availed the services of hand pulled rickshaw to visit Thakurbari, a distance of 850m from Girish Park Metro station. Throughout I kept wishing the ride would end soon. I was ridden with guilt by the end of the ride and paid him more than what he asked. “Your first ride didi?” he had asked and took the money with a smile and gratitude. Had I taken a taxi to cross the distance I don’t know when I would have reached my destination. The roads so confusing that I didn’t dare to set off on foot.

hand pulled rickshaws of kolkata images

These hand pulled rickshaws of Kolkata are common in the metropolitan city of India, Kolkata, surprising indeed! For those pulling the rickshaws it is a matter of bread and butter. The very survival of these people depends on the earnings made from travelers taking these rides. If you are in Kolkata, forget driving your vehicle. Chances are you will reach your destination many hours late. These rickshaw pullers know the lanes and by lanes thoroughly.

History of Hand Pulled Rickshaws

Trace back into the history of transports of India: the hand pulled rickshaws first appeared in India, in Shimla at around 1880. At the turn of the century hand pulled rickshaws were introduced in Calcutta and in 1914 was a conveyance for hire. Japan is credited to have invented this mode of transport in 1860s. It was introduced to several countries of Asia. The hand pulled rickshaws have very unique catchy names in different countries: pousse-pousse in Madagascar, Zulu rickshaw puller in South Africa. While some countries have banned it considering it to be degrading for human beings, it has continued to be popular in some sections of society because of the ease of service.

Advantages of Hand Pulled Rickshaws

Biggest advantage of hand pulled rickshaws is that you get door to door drop and not limited to public bus stops or stations. The speed is like your jogging speed. Another advantage is he knows the shortest way to your destination and is skillful in crossing busy roads. Once in a while you will hear him shouting at the passersby to make way for the rickshaw and you may get glances from passersby. These rickshaws have good seats and a shade that can be pulled over your head. Those rickshaw owners who can afford, their rickshaws are painted in myriad colors and designs.

hand pulled rickshaws of kolkata pictures

Rickshaw Puller Sad Life Story

But their life is a sad story! Almost all of them are uneducated, not knowing any other life skill to survive. Statistics reveal 90% of rickshaw-pullers are homeless, with an overwhelming majority of 54% living in deras (garages or places where they park their carts). Another 39% live on the pavements; the rest live in their own or rented houses. Additionally survey also revealed that 60% of rickshaw-pullers suffer from tuberculosis and other lung diseases. Their lifestyle makes them prone to respiratory diseases and heart ailments. (Statistics from 2010)

It will take sincere, wholehearted, result oriented efforts on part of government and public for their upliftment.

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71 Responses

  1. eileen says:

    Hello, what a ride! I think it would be a fun way to see the city. I guess in a small way if your take a ride you would be helping out these richshaw pullers. Enjoy your new week ahead!

  2. Carver says:

    That would be a hard way to earn a living. Great shots and narrative.

  3. Cloudia says:

    Namaste. Thank you for showing us

  4. Just read your post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Puru says:

    What is the meaning of democracy when a man pulls another man ?

    Though these rickshaws are very photogenic, I will never dare to sit on one of them. The very guilt of it will kill me on the road 🙂

    • Indrani Ghose says:

      Yes guilt killed me too… but they don’t want to give up their work, as that is the best they know may be.

  6. I know it’s very difficult for them.. But whenever we take name of Kolkata, hand pulled rickshaw automatically comes in mind 🙂

  7. matheikal says:

    It’s a pity these rickshaws are persisting showing us the dark side of our development, or policies.

  8. Ola should help them with Ola Hand Pulled Rickshaw section on their app

  9. I’d rather walk a long distance than sit in a man powered rickshaw..even a pedal driven one is equally torturous. A great tribute to poor fellow human beings, Indrani!

  10. yogi saraswat says:

    Trace back into the history of transports of India: the hand pulled rickshaws first appeared in India, in Shimla at around 1880. At the turn of the century it was introduced in Kolkata and in 1914 was a conveyance for hire. Japan is credited to have invented this mode of transport in 1860s. It was introduced to several countries of Asia. The hand pulled rickshaws have very unique catchy names in different countries: pousse-pousse in Madagascar, Zulu rickshaw puller in South Africa. While some countries have banned it considering it to be degrading for human beings, it has continued to be popular in some sections of society because of the ease of service. Very informative . Hand puller Rickshaw’s are still operative in Kolkata ? it is a surprised !

  11. such a beautifully narrated story..you have captured both satistics and humane part of the taana ricshaws….when we work for development or upliftment of people…some times we think banning is the easy way out (like banning of dance bars)…we do not realise the circumstances under which these professions happen and how much these are helping out those whoare undertaking it….if we provide alternate source of livelihood, surely these ppl would be better off!!!

  12. Niranjan says:

    Love these rickshaws. Quite an experience.

  13. magiceye says:

    An amazing post with the history of these rickshaws too.

  14. Ami says:

    Faced this one in Hyderabad but luckily avoided the same – thanks to the other options available. Sad one this is.

  15. Hand pulled rickshaw: The Not – So- Joyful Heritage of the City of Joy

  16. Legally these rickshaws are banned and the municipal corporation has not issued them any new registration plates.

  17. I wish the authorities are able to help them rather than them trying to earn a living so hard.. I dont think in todays times one needs to labour so hard to earn two meals ..

    Really a shame I think
    Bikram’s

  18. I can imagine how you must have felt, Indrani. But, please don’t feel bad! You didn’t force him for this inhuman toil. It’s the only way that guy is able to feed himself and his family. It’s gutwrenching to imagine someone toiling this way indeed! Appreciate the fact that you didn’t bargain and paid him more than agreed.

    Dil kaisa to ho gaya! The way you described this!

  19. Gowthama says:

    Some efforts should be taken from their government for banning this and also come up with some alternative livelihood measure for them. Here in India we can see both BMW taxi and hand-pulled rickshaws. Strange development!

  20. Liked the thorough account on hand-pulled rickshaws. Didn’t know about their existence outside of India.

  21. Mridula says:

    It must be a super tough life!

  22. Chaitali says:

    It was a heart warming post and you totally made me relive how I felt about it.

  23. dNambiar says:

    It’s sad to know what this occupation does to their health. And it makes sense that it was tried to ban this practice. But then again, we can understand that it is how several people earn their living, and it’s the only thing they know how to do. Maybe they should be helped to convert these hand pulled rickshaws into cycle rickshaws, at least.

    Nice to know that this mode of transport was an idea of the Japanese. Very informative piece, Indrani.

  24. i never availed Tana Rickshaw nor i will…

  25. A.p singh says:

    Very nicely described, It would be better if Govt. provide them e- rikshaws. as of now seen images of these and thought, they might be vanished but here reading your article. There is gap..

  26. Nisha says:

    Agree with you. Couldn’t muster the courage to take one when I went there last year. Yeah, I requested the rickshaw puller to let me get a pic holding it the way they do.

    I don’t know why it takes so much time to implement things.

  27. Nice info Indrani.But I wish Mallya would buy cycle rickshaws for these pullers.

    • Indrani Ghose says:

      Forget Mallya Ambani and others… they only know to build huge mansions for themselves.

  28. I understand the guilt part…whenever I hire a cycle rickshaw I too face the same dilemma but Tana Ricks seem way too inhuman. Hightime that it should be taken off the roads and ya you are right… concerted efforts by government, social services organizations and public in general will be required to usher in the change.

  29. Your reports are written with such tenderness and understanding and humanity. That is what I like so much about your blog is the humanity of it. I really enjoyed reading about the rickshaw people. It is a world away from me and my life here. I will never see it. But Indrani you give me a peek into a world I will never get to see.

  30. It is a old legacy of Kolkata. I love the pics.

  31. Insightful post Indrani! Yes, I do hope something is done very soon for their upliftment. They certainly deserve better.

  32. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder says:

    Touching narration, Indrani. I’ve availed them just once in my life. It doesn’t feel nice…not at all. But, on a second thought, what will they do if they are not allowed to pull rickshaws? This is their bread earner… 🙁

  33. Moon says:

    Hand-pulled rickshaws and trams are some of the old heritages of Kolkata. I remember, about 4-5 years back I visited Kumortuli and I had to ride a hand-pulled rickshaw to reach their from Shovabazar metro station.

    Nowadays we see a very few of them on the roads. Thanks for highlighting their life. It’s sad and unfortunate, but everything changes with time. And this metro city is no exception. The government promised them alternative livelihood when Kolkata Corporation banned these rickshaws. I don’t know if the govt has kept its promise. Some of these rickshaw pullers have gradually found alternative professions to sustain themselves while some said they will continue with it. They refused alternative job offered by the government. Today, hand-pulled rickshaws are limited in particular neighbourhoods of north Kolkata, e.g. Shovabazar and College Street, areas.

    • Indrani Ghose says:

      Thank you for the elaborate reply Moon. I wasn’t aware of what exactly did government do for them.

  34. A great post dear.
    I always feel sad when I think about these rickshaw pullers trying so hard to make a living.

  35. Beautiful post Indrani! Really felt your anguish sitting on one of them. Like you I always marvel at them every time I visit Calcutta. I do wonder whether banning them would be the best option… it surely would be disastrous if the pullers aren’t suitably employed elsewhere. And even then wonder if they would be happy!

  36. My heart starts thumping if I even run for 50 metres and look at these rickshaw pullers. Banning these Rickshaws isn’t the solution. People in power need to first look at ways of rehabilitation.

  37. Jeevan says:

    I have been traveled in cycle rickshaws but not have seen a hand pulled rickshaw here. I think banning this kind of manual rides alone not going to change anything, unless they have an alternate or better job to survive.

  38. Al says:

    What a great slice of life. It must be a hard life to pull one of those day after day.

  39. Linja says:

    Very interesting post. Sounds like they have a hard life.

  40. Great captures and good read.
    These rickshaws fascinates me a lot, waiting for my ride 😉

  41. Great pictures. I am aware of this situation completely and I always prefer them over any other means of transportation. The guilt felt atbthat time is natural. Lovely article

  42. Very beautifully written. Somehow I too find these inhuman and would rather walk than ride on these!

  43. I have always had difficulty reconciling the desire to take one of these rickshaws and contribute to helping them earn money, but on the other hand feeling so guilty that the work is just so damn hard. It is a terribly difficult decision to make as a traveler, where does it all end and how do you actually help someone?

  44. Katharina says:

    We were tempted to do this. But were unsure about the morality of it. It can sometimes be really hard to make the right ethical decision when you travel to poorer countries. Maybe there is no wrong or right?

  45. Carmy says:

    I’m always torn on this subject matter. While I understand that it is a way for someone to make money, I just can’t get past that while I’m riding on their rickshaw, I am directly contributing to their health being hindered. It is such a gray area for me and now that I know they are also homeless, I really don’t know what side to be on.

  46. Anna says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I feel quite conflicted when I see such rickshaws. it’s understandable they are a part of the heritage, but I also wish these people had more opportunities in life.

  47. Nikki says:

    A well-written and balanced insight into their lives. I think I would also feel quite torn on the matter. In one way you would be contributing to their living, and on the other you would be drastically hindering it. It’s very conflicting indeed, but thank you for sharing your views and raising awareness!

  48. Vyjay says:

    I have read and seen about the life of a Rickshaw Puller in the famous movie, “The City of Joy “, which was so poignant and moving. But I have not used the services on numerous trips to Kolkata.

  49. Corinne says:

    What an eye-opening article. I never realized the plight of the rickshaw puller before. I would be hard-pressed to hire them, but then again as is proven they would hate to be banned. It’s confusing. I really don’t know what the best answer could be.

  50. Jenna says:

    Very interesting–I would feel conflicted to ride one too. On the one hand, it’s their livelihood and way of making money, but the fact that it is so hard on them would make me feel guilty at the same time. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  51. Nope, I’ve never experienced a ride on a hand-pulled rickshaw there- mostly because I haven’t been to India yet! A trip to the country is definitely on my list- #2 on my bucket list in fact!

  52. Like you, I would be ridden with guilt while riding in a hand pulled rickshaw. This is why I avoid these types of transport when I travel. After reading your article, I feel very bad for the drivers – it’s a very difficult life.

  53. Mia Herman says:

    What a sad story about how these rickshaw pullers live. I’m not sure if it’s better to hire them so they have the money or to not hire them because they’re not well taken care of. I guess there are advantages and disadvantages. If you’re going to use one, it’s nice that they know the areas and can bring you right to your door.

  54. Guy Crotty says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks! I have never ridden in a hand pulled rickshaw but I have in a bicycle rickshaw (if that’s what you call them) in Delhi. My wife and I used them a little to get around the backstreets and had similar ethical / emotional hang-ups. We also convinced the rickshaw driver to switch places with us so we both had goes at driving him. That was probably the biggest eye opener as it was SO HARD! The rickshaw was so heavy I have no idea how the skinny young dude managed to push it around.

  55. Annie says:

    It seems like such a tricky balance to me, knowing that they likely need the money but feeling guilty about hiring a man to run you across the city. I likely would end up paying more too! Thank you for your thoughtful writing about this subject.

  56. Very interesting, especially what you say about the life of a rickshaw puller and the lack of education and stability for their life. I know I would feel very guilty too, but also it is their life and income so it is a tough balance to strike.

  57. neha says:

    I lived in kolkata for few years. And every time I would look at a hand pulled rickshaw I felt so bad. I could never think of getting on one. Then I was told by some one that now all the hand pulled rickshaw are replaced by peddled ones and some are left just as a mark of heritage. I am not sure even then why this kind of heritage would need to be preserved. Glad you are bringing the story out to the public, maybe some awareness will lead to betterment of the rickshaw pullers

  58. I’ve never had a hand pulled rickshaw, but I have been in one pulled by a man’s eyes! It was part of show, like a guiness world record type of thing. He put some contraptions in his eyes and squeezed his eyelids shut and pulled several of us on rickshaw. He was a performer at an expensive show in Vietnam, so I think he was paid well. At least I hope so.

  59. Never been in a rickshaw. I’m curious, why did they want to ban hand-pulled rickshaws? Do the ‘drivers’ get more money than a motorised one?

  60. sophie says:

    This is something I have seen for the first time. I am traveling to Asia next month and I hope I would get to see this lot in India.

  61. Marge says:

    When I first saw the photo, it reminded me of the siklo in Vietnam. They kinda look the same but at least the siklo has a bicycle that the driver can sit on and pedal. This rickshaw on the other hand, pulled manually by a person? I can only imagine how hard it must be for the driver. And hearing about the fact that most of them are homeless really breaks my heart.

  62. The ride is one of a kind experience, I bet. However, the rickshaw puller’s life is a different story. 🙁 I wish someone could help them improve their state in life.

  63. I visited Kolkata in 2015. I was surprised that still hand pulled rickshaws are driven in Kolkata. It is one example of human exploitation. It needs to be stopped and alternative job opportunities should be provided.

  64. I have seen this and I too have had only one experience which was the first and the last. Some years back I had reached Kolkata on a Bandh day and there was no transport available. From somewhere a smiling rickshawwala materialized and insisted on dropping me to the hotel. In spite of my hesitation, I was seated in the rickshaw and he miraculously led me to my hotel through some narrow lanes and bylanes. I thanked him profusely from the bottom of my heart.

  65. Jane says:

    Life is rough for these drivers and most of the time, they are forced to do this kind of work as there is no other way to earn a living. It would be nice if the government could help out.

  66. This is a sad reality about the people who are doing this kind of job 🙁 I think I saw this too when I visited Cambodia or Vietnam.

  67. cathy says:

    It’s a nice ride to try but evidently a hard work for someone who does this for a living. :/ I wish that one day they will be given a free education and won’t do the same job anymore. I just wish that tourists or anyone who rides on this will give some tip.

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