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How rickshaws have evolved

  • Published at 11:56 pm July 12th, 2019
Do we need them?
Do we need them? MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Is Dhaka’s dependency on these vehicles a good thing?

When my family migrated to Dhaka, the city had clean air, less traffic, and plenty of empty spaces where people could roam around and the children could play. My father had changed jobs at that time. If it wasn’t for his job, we wouldn’t have come to Dhaka.

Perhaps, our parents only wanted to send us to study in the universities of the city.

As I saw it, people’s migration to the capital city wasn’t yet too rapid at that time. The influx, as I saw, started during the 90s.

At that time, during the mid-80s, the number of motorized public transports was less and non-motorized three-wheeler rickshaws were able to ply on all corners and roads in the city.

We got used to the luxury; we commuted even a kilometre of distance on rickshaws -- commuting short distances on rickshaws would sound like a joke in most of the countries in the world, they would walk that kind of distance instead. On the other hand, in our country, for us, riding a rickshaw became a habit.

When we saw the rising number of motorized vehicles, we realized that the motorized and non-motorized could not exist together in an extremely busy environment. We also realized that non-motorized vehicles would one day be a serious problem for the city.

We started thinking of alternatives to non-motorized vehicles. Many wanted to ban rickshaws once and for all from the city. On the other hand, many have argued in favour of rickshaws.

What would happen to the rickshaw-pullers who, finding no employment in their villages, had come to Dhaka for their income? Rickshaw-pulling is their only source of income.

For many analysts, opinion-makers, and decision-makers, rickshaws are necessary for the socio-economic reality of Dhaka City. If those unemployed people weren’t allowed to work as rickshaw-pullers, they would engage in various kinds of criminal activity.

We all used to think rickshaw-pullers were poor and must be given the right to income, as they were truly the have-nots of those times.

Apart from the fact that rickshaw-pullers were almost exclusively poor people, we also argued that the people who commuted on rickshaws were not very well-off themselves. They couldn’t afford to commute on buses and motorized three-wheelers; so rickshaws were the perfect alternative for them.

Therefore, we also had to think about them before banning rickshaws altogether.

Do these realities still hold up? Are rickshaw-pullers ultra-poor anymore? Are rickshaws the cheapest mode of commuting? I have my doubts. 

These days, rickshaw-pullers don’t come to Dhaka because they lack work in their villages. I have spoken to a few news reporters about this. Rickshaw-pullers in Dhaka come to the city because rickshaw-pulling is more profitable than working as a day labourer in any other city. At the same time, rickshaw-pulling is also less hard work.

An unconfirmed estimate says that the rickshaw fair is currently the most expensive fair in Dhaka. Per kilometre, it is more than that of buses or CNG-run autos. And there lies the attraction of rickshaw-pulling.

This aside, we must admit that there is still a need for rickshaws in this city of ours. We are too used to riding these vehicles, whether we need them or not. The thought of not having rickshaws gives us goosebumps -- it has now entered our DNA. 

Whenever the issue of banning rickshaws arises, we take it as a threat to our mobility. We panic whenever the issue of phasing out rickshaws arises. We start rebuking the government for not being considerate about the convenience of commuters.

But as conscious citizens, we have always known that these rickshaws would have to go one day. We always knew that motorized and non-motorized cannot live together in a modern city.

Someday, we have to turn the entire system into something that will facilitate smooth commuting. We need to understand the current pulse of our roads and our transportation system. As far as fixing the traffic problems of our city, we, the commuters, have failed in many aspects.

Yes, we have failed to accomplish many aspects of our national life. We have failed to see what our roads would turn into when we started as a nation back in 1971. For a long time, over the decades, there has been no planning for our roads -- even if we had plans, we weren’t serious about implementing them.

We must think clearly and logically for the future. We must understand that rickshaws and rickshaw-pullers have to be upgraded.

The days of keeping both motorized and non-motorized vehicles have long gone. 

Ekram Kabir is a story-teller. His works can be found on ekramkabir.com.

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