India's Rickshaws: Human Horses

Photographs and Text by Palani Mohan

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These men in bare feet, the “human horses” of Calcutta, haul people and goods through the city’s choked lane-ways for 18 hours a day in the heat and the rain, earning just a few rupees.

The Marxist government of West Bengal state, which renamed the famous city “Kolkata”, has described this work as “barbaric,” “despicable,” and “inhuman.” There is no place for them in the year 2010, they claim; but the city’s residents disagree. There are over 18,000 hand-pulled rickshaws in this place also known as the “City of Joy”

Almost all of the pullers originates from the state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. They come here looking for work after leaving their families behind in the villages. Rickshaws have long been an iconic part of Kolkata. They were introduced over a century ago by the Chinese and still play a vital role.

Kolkata is a sprawling city of more than 15 million, which has been going through dramatic changes over the past two decades. Heavily polluted with crumbling colonial architecture and 24-hour traffic jams, the human horses are often the only ones who can make any progress around the narrow streets and laneways. The rickshaws carry everything from live chickens, to school children, the sick to the hospitals, and fruit to the markets. Without the rickshaws, the locals say, the City of Joy would come to a stand still.

The state government has announced plans to completely ban the rickshaws, saying that the grueling work violates their human rights – an argument rejected by the rickshaw pullers who responded with huge protests. The Calcutta Samaritans a charity that runs a program to protect rickshaw pullers recently published a report that said the abolition of rickshaws from the streets of Kolkata "would have an immediate and catastrophic effect on the well-being of thousands of people already struggling on the economic fringe."

”This is a cursed life. I have been doing this for a long time and pray to the gods for my end to come quickly...but then what will happen to my family?” says Mohammad Salim, a 60-year-old man originally from Bihar who has been pulling rickshaws for over 40 years. He has a wife and six children who he sees just once a year. He earns a few dollars a day and most of it goes to pay for the rent of the rickshaw, leaving him next to nothing to send back to the family.

“We have the heat, the rains and the constant harassment by the gangsters and the police to put up with. I’m getting weaker by the day and think more and more about my family every day” he says.

Full black/white edit of 96 images is available upon request.