A clever rickshaw-puller avoids a heavy duty passenger – courtesy Ananda Vikatan archives

 In the ever-evolving landscape of transportation in our city, the once-familiar sight of cycle rickshaws has faded into obscurity, giving way to the dominance of auto-rickshaws. It was in the 1960s that mechanized or cycle rickshaws made their debut, replacing the hand-pulled rickshawsthat had been prevalent until then. A significant milestone in this transition occurred on June 3, 1973, when the State Government took a revolutionary step by phasing out all hand-pulled rickshaws. As we engage in the perpetual discourse on improving transportation options, let us take a moment to reminisce about these two bygone forms of transportation from the past.

The Hand-Pulled Rickshaw : The Legacy

The hand-pulled rickshaw originated in the Far East and is believed to have been first introduced in Japan, where it was known as “jin ricky shaw” (human-powered vehicle). Its presence in India can be traced back to the summer capital of Simla during the late 19th century. Despite concerns about the pullers contracting tuberculosis due to the strain of pulling heavy loads in the rarified hill air, the hand-pulled rickshaw gained popularity in urban centers, including Madras (now Chennai), by the early 20th century. Initially, there were some moral qualms associated with riding in a vehicle pulled by a fellow human, but such concerns were quickly set aside in the face of convenience.

The Rickshaw-Puller’s Life : In Fiction

Kothamangalam Subbu’s humorous story, “Vaitheekar Pattana Pravesam,” set in 1940, offers an amusing portrayal of Madras through the eyes of Vembanna, an orthodox villager. When Vembanna encounters a hand-pulled rickshaw for the first time, he expresses surprise and jests about the short yoke, comparing it to a vehicle that a turkey might pull. The revelation that humans are the ones pulling the rickshaw shocks him further, questioning whether passengers can truly accept such a mode of transport. Vembanna concludes that, like the monkey in the crocodile story from the Panchatantra, rural folks should leave their hearts behind in the village before venturing into Madras.

Being a rickshaw puller was far from easy, often driven by dire poverty. Many pullers migrated from rural areas after losing their land and livelihood. Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengali story “Do Bigha Jomi” and its subsequent Hindi film adaptation depicted the struggles of a rickshaw puller, who, despite physical strain and exploitation, worked tirelessly to support himself and his passengers. Rickshaw pullers existed on the fringes of society, earning meager wages and compromising their health. They also faced harassment from police authorities. In the 1940s and 1950s, rickshaw pullers needed licenses from both the police and the Corporation, leading to bureaucratic hurdles and additional hardships. Notably, they were required to prominently display a metal badge

The Hand-Pulled Rickshaw to Cycle Rickshaws : A Decisive Move

MGR, in and as Rickshakkaran

Following India’s independence, there were ongoing debates about the continuation of hand-pulled rickshaws as a mode of transport. In 1954, the Lok Sabha concluded that it was up to the individual states to decide. Bombay (now Mumbai), under the leadership of Morarji Desai, became the first city to ban hand-pulled rickshaws. During this time, cycle rickshaws, originally invented in Japan in the 19th century, emerged in India as a more dignified alternative. In Madras, the government took proactive steps to encourage rickshaw pullers to transition to cycle rickshaws. They provided interest-free loans and promoted the formation of cooperatives.

Progress, however, was slow until the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party took up the cause. Matinee idol MG Ramachandran, also known as MGR, famously gifted raincoats to 6,000 rickshaw pullers in the late 1950s and portrayed a rickshaw puller in the 1971 film “Rickshawkaran.” His association with the DMK and the party’s commitment to banning hand-pulled rickshaws brought the issue into the spotlight, contributing to the film’s tremendous success.

Transition to Cycle Rickshaws : A Shift

In 1969, when M Karunanidhi became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu following the death of CN Annadurai, one of his first acts was to hasten the demise of the hand-pulled rickshaw. On his 50th birthday, namely June 3, 1973, he took decisive action on it.  It was estimated then that there were 2,000 hand-pulled rickshaws in the State, of which 1,294 plied in the city. Replacing these with cycle rickshaws was expected to cost Rs 20 lakhs and the public was appealed to for funds. The party cadre was made responsible and it swung into action. There were complaints of coercion especially from party men and also tax officials.

The money however was collected by June 1973 and on the 5th of the month, at a ceremony outside Rajaji Hall, the Chief Minister gave away 301 cycle rickshaws as a start of the project. Thereafter, the action shifted to the various police stations in the State. Licensed rickshaw pullers, who were plying hired vehicles were to receive cycle rickshaws for free. If the owner of the vehicle surrendered it, then he was given Rs 200 as compensation – a very generous settlement given that the old vehicle would fetch at most Rs 25 as scrap. By September 15 that year, on CN Annadurai’s birthday, the replacements were all done.  It was a revolutionary move for its time and thereafter cycle rickshaws ruled the roost.

The Rise of Auto-Rickshaws : Transport Evolves

 The 1970s marked the heyday of cycle rickshaws. Many families had established regular arrangements with rickshaw drivers, relying on them to transport children to school, accompany women for shopping, or take elders to temples. Over time, the rickshawkaran (rickshaw puller) became an integral part of the family dynamics. However, the arrival of three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, pioneered by NK Firodia and manufactured in India by Bajaj Auto Limited, presented formidable competition. In 1970, there were already 200 auto-rickshaws in the city, and by 2016, their numbers had reached approximately 75,000.

As the city expanded and travel needs became more varied, cycle rickshaws could no longer meet the demands beyond local commuting. Additionally, inherent design limitations and slower speeds posed challenges for cycle rickshaws. Consequently, auto-rickshaws eventually surpassed their pedal-powered counterparts in popularity during the 1980s. While cycle rickshaws have become a forgotten relic of the past, their legacy remains etched in the memories of those who experienced their charm and convenience. As we navigate a future marked by evolving transportation trends, it is important to acknowledge the pivotal role these humble rickshaws played in shaping our city’s transportation history. Let us celebrate their forgotten jubilee and honor the perseverance of the rickshaw pullers who dedicated their lives to serving.

Change as they say, is the only constant. 

This article appeared in the Madras Musings issue of July 16, 2023

A video on this topic appears in the following channels –

English – https://youtu.be/p0Wj5EWEL5s

Tamil – https://youtu.be/7jwIbP8lMsE

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