Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXIII No. 7, July 16-31, 2023

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

-- by Sriram V

From Hand-Pulled to Cycle Rickshaws – A Forgotten Jubilee

There was a time when the cycle rickshaw was ubiquitous in our city. Now it has become a rarity, with the auto-rickshaw having more or less taken over. The mechanised or cycle rickshaw came to our city in the 1960s. Prior to that, we had the hand-pulled rickshaw. And then, fifty years ago, on June 3, 1973 to be precise, the State Government in a revolutionary step, replaced all the hand-pulled rickshaws with the mechanised variety. In a city where the debate on better and more reliable means of transport is never-ending, let us look back at these two forms from the past.

The hand-pulled rickshaw was essentially an idea borrowed from the Far East. It is said to have originated in Japan, with the word jin ricky shaw (human powered vehicle) being of Japanese origin. It probably was first used in India in the imperial summer capital of Simla. By the 1890s it was certainly a popular means of travel there with hardly anybody bothering about the prevalence of tuberculosis among the pullers, brought on by steady weakening of the lungs owing to pulling heavy loads in rarefied hill air. By 1911 or so it had become a popular mode of transport in all urban centres, Madras residents quickly stifling any stirrings of conscience over sitting in a vehicle pulled by a fellow human. Kothamangalam Subbu’s Vaitheekar Pattana Pravesam is a droll story dating to 1940 and deals with the first impressions of Madras on Vembanna, an orthodox villager. The narrator of the story receives him at the station. Vembanna is shocked at the prospect of boarding a hand-pulled rickshaw.

A clever rickshaw-puller avoids a hefty passenger – courtesy: Ananda Vikatan archives.

“What is this,” he asked. “No bullock or horse and with such a short yoke! Does a turkey pull it?” On being told that a human pulls it he assumed it was used for the transport of goods. When told it is meant for transporting people, he was shocked.

“All right, for the rickshaw puller it is a question of survival,” he said. “But can a passenger agree to this?”

On being told it is acceptable in the city, Vembanna remarks that like the monkey in the crocodile story of the Panchatantra fame, it best that rural folk leave their hearts behind in the village before coming to Madras.

Fights over customers were common among rickshaw pullers and quarrels over fares with customers were legendary. The rickshaw pullers were capable of some sharp practice too. Kothamangalam Subbu’s magnum opus, Thillana Mohanambal, which he wrote under the pseudonym of Kalaimani, has a scene where Dharman and Muthurakku, percussionists in the nagaswaram ensemble of the hero Shanmugasundaram accompany him to the city for his medical treatment. Having admitted him into the General Hospital they decide to visit Moore Market. They hail a rickshaw not knowing that the market is just opposite the hospital. The rickshaw puller charges them a rupee, a mammoth sum for the 1930s, the period in which the novel is set, takes them on a roundabout route and deposits them finally at the market.

Being a rickshaw-puller was not easy. Most took to it due to dire poverty. Many of them were migrants from the rural areas where loss of land and livelihood had forced them out. This is best illustrated in Rabindranath Tagore’s story Do Bigha Jomi in Bengali, which later in the 1950s was made as a Hindi film. “The rickshaw is a small two-wheeled gig, pulled by a coolie and it is not uncommon to see a wretched coolie struggling along with two heavy adults in his vehicle,” wrote C.W. Ranson in his 1930s work on Madras – A City in Transition. “It is a cheap but slow method of transport and involves a type of human labour which is open to serious criticism. A sensitive person can hardly ride with comfort behind the strained and sweating back of a fellow human being or feel justified in thus employing him as a beast of burden.”

Rickshaw-pullers lived on the fringes of society, earned a pittance and ruined their health pulling the vehicle. To top it all there were harassments from policemen. In the 1940s and 1950s rickshaws needed two licences to ply, one each from the police and the Corporation. You can imagine as to how the poor men were made to run from pillar to post to get the precious documents. One of these was a metal badge that the man had to wear prominently. Post-Independence there was serious debate over the continuance of such a mode of transport and in 1954, the Lok Sabha wound up one such discussion stating that it was up to the States to decide. Bombay, under Morarji Desai, was the first to ban hand-pulled rickshaws.

MGR in, and as, Rickshawkaran.

By then, the cycle rickshaw, once again a 19th century invention of Japan, had made its appearance in India. This was a more dignified vehicle for the driver could remain seated and pedal instead of pulling his load. The Madras Government began encouraging rickshaw-pullers to switch over to the new vehicle. It gave interest-free loans and made efforts to get the rickshaw-drivers to form cooperatives. Progress was slow. The DMK made it a key promise. Matinee idol M.G. Ramachandran, who in the late 1950s had famously gifted 6,000 rickshaw-pullers with raincoats, acted as one in the 1971 film Rickshawkaran. Posters of the hero pedalling away can still be sometimes seen at the rear of some rickshaws. The DMK’s manifesto claim of banning the hand-pulled variety and MGR being a staunch member of the party made it a topical subject and the film was a huge hit. In 1969, when M. Karunanidhi became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu following the death of C.N. 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 C.N. Annadurai’s birthday, the replacements were all done.

It was a revolutionary move for its time and thereafter cycle rickshaws ruled the roost. Their heydays were the 1970s. Many families had fixed arrangements with cycle rickshaw drivers for dropping children at school, taking the lady of the house shopping or the elders to the temple. The rickshawkaran became a family member over time.

But competition was already creeping up by way of the three-wheeled auto rickshaw, the creation of N.K. Firodia and made in India by Bajaj Auto Limited. By 1970, the city had 200 of them. In 2016 there were around 75,000. As the city expanded, it became difficult for cycle rickshaws to offer anything beyond local rides and this restricted their scope. There were besides many hazards associated with the vehicle owing to its design and the slow speeds possible on it. The auto-rickshaw overtook the pedalling variety by the 1980s.

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