Dhanraj Yadav, 40
From Bishanpura, Gaya
Now a rickshaw-puller in Kolkata
Dhanraj Yadav does not look 40. His short cropped hair is nearly entirely grey and his weather-beaten leathery face belongs to a much older man. He is one of the thousands of rickshaw-pullers from Bihar who have made Kolkata their home since decades. From a small village called Bishanpura in Gaya district of Bihar, Yadav came to Kolkata when he was barely 15, looking for a job to support his family.
“I didn’t know I would be pulling rickshaws. Of course, this is not a job that anybody willingly wants to do. But you have to do whatever you get to fill your stomach,’’he says. Yadav has been pulling his rickshaw for the past 25 years and sends whatever he can back home every month to support his wife and his three sons who now go to school. “Sometimes I make Rs 200 a day, sometimes Rs 300, sometimes nothing… it all depends.’’
Yadav has his vote in his village. “I did go and vote in these elections. But I’m not going to tell you who I voted for. Jisko dena tha usko diya,’’ he says, adding that he may not have gone home at all if not for a family crisis. While home, he voted.
Like all rickshaw-pullers in the city, Yadav does not have a home or even a rented room. Most nights, he simply sleeps on the street, next to where he has parked his hand-drawn rickshaw. “There are a couple of dormitories where the rickshaw-pullers sleep. But that’s mostly when it gets cold. I have my meals from small tea stalls — it costs me Rs 30-40 a day,’’ he says. He earns Rs 4,000-6,000 a month.
Most rickshaw-pullers come to Kolkata from either Bihar or Jharkhand, says Mukhtar Ali, director of the Kolkata rickshaw-pullers’ union. “A large number of them come from Motihari in Bihar. In recent years, as unemployment has gone up in the state, many poor Bengalis have taken to pulling rickshaws. But Biharis from poor districts continue to dominate the profession,’’ he says.
In 2005, the Left government passed a law in the Assembly to ban hand-drawn rickshaws in Kolkata citing that the mode of transport was extremely inhuman. “But even as they brought in this ban, nothing was done to rehabilitate the rickshawpullers. We have been fighting this law in court. We have met the present government several times and they have been sympathetic to our cause. The transport department has proposed that the hand-drawn rickshaws be replaced by battery-operated ones and be run by the same pullers. While a hand-drawn rickshaw costs Rs 10,000, a battery operated one costs
Rs 45,000, so the government has even proposed a subsidy of Rs 30,000. But this was proposed last December, and it has already been 11 months,’’says Ali.
There are an estimated 6,500 rickshaw-pullers in Kolkata. But with the government still ambivalent about their future, only 5,000 of these are on the roads now. “It’s a seasonal profession. Most rickshaw-pullers go home anyway during harvesting season to tend to their fields. But the two occasions when they go back to Bihar is either Holi in March or Muharram. Then we face an acute shortage in the city,’’says Ali.
With the “new generation’’ choosing to opt out of this work, most rickshaw-pullers in the city are well into their 60s. That makes Yadav one of the younger rickshaw- pullers. The day ends at a nearby school and Yadav jumps up. “I don’t have time to talk anymore, I have to go find passengers,’’ he says and jogs off in rhythm to the tinkling bell that hangs from the side of his cart.