The Rickshaw Wallahs of Kolkata, India

The Rickshaw Wallahs of Kolkata, India

Rickshaw Puller-2

For most of us, it is difficult to watch a person being used as a beast of burden pulling another person and their belongings. It seems inhumane, all the more because of India’s caste system. Nonetheless, rickshaw wallahs (pullers) are an ubiquitous part of Kolkata. In fact, rickshaws have plied the streets of this city for over a century. They first appeared in the late 1800s, brought by Chinese traders to transport their goods.Rickshaw Puller

Today, about 18,000 rickshaw wallahs remain, though their continued existence is tenuous. The banning of hand pulled rickshaws in Kolkata has been in the works for years. A typical wallah’s day starts at 5 am delivering goods to merchants around the city. Then, he may take children to school, trusted and relied upon by the family. After a short rest, he continues delivering clients and their goods around the city until way past dark. All of this for about $3 per day. Out of that meager income, comes rental for the rickshaw, bribes to the police, a meal and a loft to sleep in, along with other pullers. In spite of the hard work and low wages, the pullers are proud of what they do and of the relationships they have with their customers.

Monsoon season is when rickshaws are really indispensable. They are the only vehicle that can navigate the flooded streets of Kolkata. Taxis, tuk tuks, buses, streetcars, all are useless in the high water.

If the rickshaws are banned from the streets of Kolkata, the consequences would be significant: 18,000 men would become unemployed, many school children and others who depend on the rickshaw wallahs for transport, would have to find other means; thus, further clogging Kolkata’s already impossible streets. And the iconic image of rickshaws plying the streets of this Indian city would be lost forever.

Ron Mayhew

Fine Art Photographer specializing in Still Life and Commercial Photography.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Really interesting! Had no idea about this, thanks!

    1. Thank you Tina. It is great to scratch below the surface just a little. So fascinating.

  2. every action is followed by a consequence … I strive for social action; yet, all possible “what if …” needs to be explored. I appreciate the reality within your image and words.

    1. Brenda, thank you for your thoughtful comment. There are always consequences, some unintended.

  3. That is a fabulous face of the Richshaw puller, was there are portrait? What was the mans name?

    1. I was able to get off three quick shots before traffic closed in around him. This seems the best. He was aware I photographed him, hence the faint smile. No words were exchanged.

  4. Beautiful Photo, I haven’t been in Kolkata yet, but I now these things happening in other Indian cities. Many times the rickshaw drivers are addicted to alcohol or drugs, because of the hard work. In Delhi you can see many children, the garbage pickers, who are addicted at sniffing glue.

  5. The B&W is really nice! It sort of takes you back in time…

  6. ..and this is 2013, it is sad to see this, these people deserve better!

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