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Coronavirus: The agony of Dhaka’s rickshaw pullers

  • Published at 10:51 pm April 1st, 2020
Photo: Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

'Police sometimes stop me and ask why I am out'

The streets of the capital remain largely empty due to the lockdown imposed by the government to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The rickshaw pullers of Dhaka, most of whom are the only earning members of their families, are suffering immensely as the number of passengers has seen a sharp decline in the last couple of weeks. 

With the government extending the duration of the ‘holiday’ till April 11, things are not looking so promising for these daily wage earners.

Dhaka Tribune talked with a number of rickshaw pullers working here in the capital in order to get a better understanding of their struggles and hardships amid the Covid-19 crisis. 

Most of them told the correspondent that they were forced to come out on the streets in search of passengers as this is their only source of income, and they have to feed their kids and pay the bills.

The struggles, hardships

Masud, 26, who lives in Dhaka's Rayer Bazar area came out on the streets with his rickshaw around 3pm, for which he has to pay rent to the owner, but was unable to find any passengers. 

"Police sometimes stop me and ask why I am out. They tell me not to be on the streets due to the virus outbreak. But now it has become very difficult for me to earn my daily livelihood.  

“Currently I earn only Tk150 on an average everyday. Then I pay Tk100 rent to the owner of the rickshaw,” Masud said.

“There are five members in my family and they live in our ancestral home. But due to the current situation, I can’t even send the minimum amount of money back home that is required for basic survival. It’s not only me who is suffering; my family members are also struggling to make ends meet because of coronavirus.

“I hear that the government has allocated a special budget and relief for poor people like us. But my family is yet to receive any help from the authorities concerned. If the government lets the army supervise this whole relief program, only then the poor will benefit,” he added. 

Another rickshaw puller, Farhad, 36, searching for passengers in Dhaka’s Farmgate area, ignoring the scorching heat of the afternoon sun, said: “Earlier I used to earn Tk500 to Tk700 on a normal day. But I couldn’t even make Tk700  in the last five days!”

Farhad told the correspondent that he usually eats at roadside hotels as prices are quite cheap there. But as most of these shops in Dhaka are closed now as per government directives, eating has become very expensive for him. 

“The garage where I keep my rickshaw has around 120 rickshaws pullers, but today [Wednesday] only eight went out for work,” Farhad added. 

Md Helal Udddin, 45, who lives in Savar, has to come to Razabazar everyday, said: “It has become difficult for me to come to Dhaka due to the government holiday and transport ban. Moreover, I have to borrow money from my neighbours for daily essential groceries."

2,200,000 rickshaw pullers in Dhaka

According to a study titled "A Study of Rickshaw Pullers in Dhaka City" published in March last year by Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), there are around 1,100,000 rickshaws in more than 5,000 garages with 2,200,000 rickshaw pullers working in Dhaka. 

However, of those, only 79,554 are registered with the two Dhaka city corporations.

The study also said that more than 2,500,000 people (mostly owners and rickshaw pullers) are directly involved in Dhaka’s rickshaw sector. 

Contacted, Khandoker Salam, senior trainer and consultant at BILS, said: “We haven’t been in such a situation since the 1980s. Most unmarried rickshaw pullers have gone back to their villages. “

“Those who didn’t go have their families here. A large number of these cannot return home due to the lack of work opportunities there. 

“If the government wants to provide aid to these people then they have to prepare a list first and then let the army handle operations of the program. The situation that rickshaw pullers of Dhaka are going through now, along with other daily wage earners in the country, is extremely difficult.” 

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