Once a symbol of modernity, cycle-rickshaws are now on the brink of extinction

Off the bustling Kamarajar Salai, on the 8th street of Lakshmipuram, the clamour of metals rents the afternoon air. K.Pitchai Asari is busy fitting a bright red cushion seat within a chromium frame. “I am making a new rickshaw after almost a year,” he says. The workshop is a dingy pigeon hole that draws every rickshaw-wallah in the city for buying the vehicle. Pitchai, the only surviving manufacturer sets aside his hammer and rewinds five decades back.

Status symbol

“In the 1960s and 70s, rickshaw was a major mode of transport. There were few buses and no autos. It was the car of those days – a status symbol for the rich!” he recalls. “Every big house in the town had a private rickshaw to drop their kids at school and for their women to go shopping. Life was laid back and people enjoyed the leisure rides.”

Pitchai learnt the technique of making rickshaws from his maama, who was trained in Nagpur. “Nearly 10 men from Madurai went to Nagpur to learn making modern rickshaws. Before that, even Madras wasn’t making any as it had only hand-pulled rickshaws. Madurai was the first city to introduce cycle-rickshaws in the State,” he says.

Those days there were 60 workshops making rickshaws and over 1,200 people were dependent on the business. The Madurai-made rickshaws were unique in design as they looked like chariots. Famous all over the state, the orders came from Thanjavur, Sattur, Tirunelveli, Kumbakonam, Tuticorin and Ramnad. “We used to make even 10 rickshaws a week,” says Pitchai.

Today, there are no rickshaw-makers left in the city and Pitchai makes one or two a year. “I am doing it to keep alive the technique and the art of rickshaw-making. This is not my main business. We don’t get many orders for new vehicles. But repairs and modifications are more in number,” he says. “I remember making cycle-rickshaws for Rs.900 and today the same costs Rs.20,000. But once made, a rickshaw remains in good running condition for at least 30 years.”

Until 80s, rickshaws were popular among the public, says Pitchai. “Only after the spurt in number of autorickshaws, the cycle-rickshaws went down in number. We even tried fitting motors to make it survive, but it didn’t work. The same happened to the horse-drawn tongas in the 60s,” he says.

Most cycle-rickshaw pullers feel that the share-autos are the main cause for their business going down. “Share-autos have eaten into our customer base. They ply for cheaper rates and are faster and naturally people prefer them,” says Kurumban, a rickshaw-wallah on North Masi Street. “A cycle-rickshaw on the other hand, can’t go on the over-bridge and there are restrictions on the routes that we ply.”

Mayakrishnan rues the lack of an organized body for rickshaw-pullers. “We don’t have any organization to take care of our demands. Our wages are not standardized as that of autos and share-autos and we don’t have earmarked stands either,” he says. “A few years ago, we were relieved of the brass license plates by the police. From then, the organization crumbled and now any random person can ride rickshaws.”

It is estimated that 1,000 cycle-rickshaws run on Madurai roads now. A majority of them are seen around the temple and palace as foreign tourists form the chunk of those who take a ride in the rickshaws. “Other than foreigners, those staying around the temple and and traders on the Masi Streets hire us. We also transport goods that fit in,” says 70-year-old Muniswaran, who drives a rented rickshaw for the past 50 years. “I started as a teenager and used to charge in annas. Now we charge minimum Rs. 30 and maximum Rs.80 for long distance such as Anna Nagar or Mattuthavani. I pay a monthly rent of Rs.200.”

On an average, a rickshaw-puller in Madurai earns Rs.100 to Rs.300 per day. Most of them run rented vehicles that are owned by merchants or political cadres, while some buy old vehicles at cheaper rates and revamp them. “Buying a new vehicle is beyond imagination. Though banks offer loans, not many are interested in investing as the prospects of a decent earning is bleak. We may end in debts. Many have shifted to tri-cycles that get regular load shunting orders,” points out Selva.

For long, cycle-rickshaws have been a mode of self-expression and political propaganda. Even today, most of them carry symbols of political parties, painted on them. Crudely done paintings of Gods and Goddesses, popular political leaders such as MGR and catchy slogans are seen on rickshaws. Ramesh, a resident of Panthadi, who has been painting cycle-rickshaws for over 20 years, says, “Actor MGR is most commonly painted on rickshaws. Images of Gods like Murugan and Meenakshi, the temple tower and decorative motifs come next.” He recalls, an old rickshaw-wallah who used to ride the vehicle sporting a cap, goggles and a kerchief tied around the neck, imitating MGR. The actor played the role of a rickshaw puller in the film ‘Rickshawkkaran’.

Small-time traders also paint advertisements on cycle-rickshaws, for which they pay the rider, Rs.30 per month.

Making of rickshaw:

Making of a rickshaw involves carpentry, metal-welding, mechanical job and painting. Materials like Aluminium rods, cushion, tarpaulin sheet, wooden frame and base of a cycle are used to assemble a single rickshaw. A kind of wood called Agini is mainly used for the rickshaw frame, but as it became more expensive, a variety of Vaagai wood is being used these days.