Hand Pulled Rickshaw and Trams: Old modes of public transport in Kolkata are keeping the Heritage alive

The once-efficient and popular public transport options like tram and hand-pulled ricksaws, which are a big part of Kolkata's rich cultural and historical legacy, now face a vague future as they are not up-to-date with the 21st century way of life today

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Transport in Kolkata
Hand Pulled Rikshaw in Kolkata. NewsGram
  • Two old modes of transport that are equivalent with Kolkata’s cultural heritage are the Tram system and hand-pulled rickshaws.
  • The tram system in Kolkata is currently the only operating tram network in India and the oldest operating electric tram in Asia, running since 1902
  • In a 2013 survey conducted by International Association of Public Transport, Kolkata grabbed the top spot among the six cities surveyed in India
Kolkata, August 1, 2017: Kolkata definitely has a very well-connected public transport system. There is a huge array of options available such as the Kolkata Suburban Railway, Kolkata Metro, bus, auto-rickshaws, and meter-taxis. In a 2013 survey conducted by International Association of Public Transport, Kolkata grabbed the top spot among the six cities surveyed in India.
The Kolkata Metro, in operation since 1984, is the oldest underground mass transit system in India while the suburban rail network reaches the farthest suburbs in the city. In short, the people of Kolkata enjoy a very convenient transport network.
But Kolkata has a few signature modes of public transport that makes the city stand out.  For example, there’s the tram system in the city which is currently the only operating tram network in India and the oldest operating electric tram in Asia, running since 1902.
Today CTC owns 257 trams, of which 125 trams are running on the streets of Kolkata on a daily basis. Then there are the hand-pulled rickshaws, which are human-powered carriages that seat one or two passengers. But today in the age of Ola and Uber, these transport options which are not exactly up to the speed of the daily lives of the 21st century stand at the gates of an uncertain and vague future.

Hand pulled ricksaw and tram
Hand pulled rickshaw and tram in Kolkata. Wikimedia

For more than 100 years, the trams have been the eco-friendly lifeline of the ‘City of Joy’. But in today’s corporate world where being even one minute late to work can be compromising, it is not a surprise that a public transport option as slow as the tram system will be condemned by the passengers. Moreover, there have been accusations about the tram service occupying too much road space, carrying too few passengers and also slowing down the speed of other vehicles. The state government has mulled phasing out trams from the streets of Kolkata. Reportedly, high-level meetings have been held to work out how to bring the curtains down on the very old mode of city transport.
The transport department has recently stopped tram services in many routes through Chitpur Road as well as Rabindra Sarani. It has sold the Tollygunj tram depot on 244 cottah of land to a real estate agency for Rs 181 crore, Belgachhia tram depot in the northern part of the city is all set to be leased out to another private agency soon.
The employees hardly have any clue about how the dilemma about their future will end, but they are not unaware of the reality. According to a tram conductor who intends to remain anonymous, people still choose to ride trams in certain routes but it is not hard to guess that during rush hour they would rather avoid it and go for faster and more efficient transport options. He also added the fact that during the morning time, which is the office time for most of us, the crowd opting for a tram is much thinner than the crowd which chooses to take a tram to return home in the evening. He believes that the tram system is still surviving because of the public fascination with protecting traditions, not because they wish to prioritize the tram system as a mode of day-to-day transport.

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Another such surviving old mode of transport in Kolkata is the hand-pulled rickshaws. The same complaint surrounds these – a human-drawn cart cannot be fast or convenient enough. Also, there have been human-rights complaints that this is a system that practices and encourages human labor and people have petitioned for the abolishment of the hand-pulled rickshaw system. But again the public infatuation with preserving traditions has become predominant.
In 2006, former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee wanted to ban hand-pulled rickshaws on the city streets, but he was forced to drop the idea in the face of popular resistance.
When we are busy debating whether or not to discontinue the practice, we are ignoring the fact that there are so many people whose lives are all about those rickshaws. The rickshaw-pullers come from the bottom of the economic hierarchy of our society; they do not get the worth of their physical labor. It is no easy task carrying humans but it is not like they have another better option.
According to Dilip Pal, an 82-year-old rickshaw-puller who has been an in this profession since 1952, even though in their ‘lucky days’ they might earn 100 or 150 rupees, there are often days when they don’t earn a penny. When he had first started he had seen much better days and had a far better life, but now the demand of a hand-pulled rickshaw, especially where the puller is aged, has gone down. Now, blind in one eye and in need for an abdomen surgery but unable to afford it, all Mr. Pal can do is count the days he has left and continue pulling his rickshaw as long as he can, or else he won’t even have food to eat. Dilip Pal is among many others like him who are stuck in this life of poverty and daily struggle.

Definitely, the state has plans to somewhat resurrect the tram system but there is no denying the fact that trams will never be able to compete with high-speed trains or metros. There is no denying the fact that the lives of the rick saw-pullers are always being overlooked. The point is that, yes, preserving the cultural heritages is important, but we should also look out for the lives of the people that will turn upside down because of certain actions. In fact, that should be the priority.
Here’s to hoping there will be fair solutions.

– prepared by Durba Mandal of NewsGram. Twitter @dubumerang


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  • Yash Agrawal

    “trams will never be able to compete with high-speed trains or metros.” – Trains and metros don’t provide last-mile connectivity which only trams and buses can provide.