Rickshaws can run Bangladesh for about a month and a half with the Tk374 billion, or approximately $4.8 billion, that they generate every year, according to conservative estimates based on official figures.
The money supports almost 1.5 million rickshaw pullers and their families directly.
Indirectly, this non-motorised vehicle supports a few million more including mechanics, painters, workers, parts suppliers and helps sustain the demand for roadside food vendors.
Unofficial estimates put the number of rickshaw pullers at about 800,000 in Dhaka city alone.
Economist Binayak Sen said the manual three-wheelers outweighed other vehicles of the industry as far as economic contribution is concerned. “Rickshaw is undoubtedly the leading contributor in the transportation sector even compared to air and rail services.”
He, however, refrained from putting an amount on the volume of rickshaws' contribution in the current market.
According to official data, rickshaw pullers earn about Tk450 per day for 26 days every month. Their net income, however, stands at about Tk370 a day.
Industry insiders and experts say the incomes vary slightly but daily expenditure for rent, incidentals and maintenance are higher than the official figures presume, which lowers their daily net income.
The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics puts a rickshaw puller’s monthly income at Tk11,517, plying 42km every day.
Along the way, they end up spending money on odd repair jobs, street side vendors and a host of other people. Insiders say a rickshaw has 41 individual parts that have their own production plants, each with dozens, sometimes hundreds of employees.
Perhaps the easiest and almost instant source of employment generation, rickshaw pulling appears to be a vocation that attracts a large number of people who flock the cities from rural areas. These people also send money to their families back home despite their meager income.
But rickshaw owners benefit more. Extrapolating from the official figures, Ramzan Miah, a rickshaw puller in Mohammadpur area for 20 years, could have bought 15 rickshaws with the rent he has paid so far.
Ramzan, however, has little clue and is intent on making ends meet. “I just want to make enough today so I can feed my family,” he said.
Without further ado, he drives off his rickshaw, painted with the colourful gaudy lookalikes of Dhallywood stars Sakib Khan and Misha Showdagor.
The paint job
Bangladeshi rickshaw art is inspired by movie posters and local cinema. These striking paintings with their bold reds, blues and greens sometimes outlive the rickshaw and weather through the torrential rains and scorching sun.
Yoshihiro Nukumizu, managing director of Amader Limited, which sells rickshaw paintings online among other services, said rickshaw art is very popular among foreigners.
“People who live in Bangladesh and foreigners often buy rickshaw art as souvenirs,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
Dhaka rickshaw is so popular that it was used to carry players into the Bangabandhu National Stadium at the opening ceremony of the 2011 Cricket World Cup which Bangladesh co-hosted.
But the art is only at one end of the production process. It begins with the body and the frame. Md Sarwar, who has been making rickshaw bodies for 15 years, says he charges about Tk8,000 for each. “It takes about three days to produce one with up to five labourers working on it full-time,” he said.
From Sarwar, the body goes to painters who typically charge Tk700 to decorate and paint each rickshaw.
It takes one whole day to paint a rickshaw and the next day to put in the final touches. Mahbub Ali, who has been in the business for almost 18 years, said painting rickshaws did not really require fine skills or a steep learning curve.
“Basically, we do not have any technical skills. We learned these skills from our teachers years ago,” he said.
He said demand for his services has declined with the advent of digital technology which makes it easy to produce rickshaw artwork.
Even the vehicles themselves have a market beyond Bangladesh’s borders.
One online business rickshaw.com.bd says on its website that it has been exporting rickshaws for “6 years with buyer satisfaction and strong commitment.” The site states that it has exported Bangladeshi manual rickshaws to the USA, Germany, Denmark, England, Sweden, Japan, Singapore and Australia.
Alibaba.com also sells rickshaws, although not adorned with the typical artwork seen in Bangladesh, at $250 each.