Bargaining for “bohni” or hustling with cops, it’s never a dull day for rickshaw-wallah blogger Gaurav Jain
Every morning, at Vishwa Vidyalaya Metro station, among the scores of cycle-rickshaw pullers wooing you, there’s one bespectacled rickshaw wallah who’s interested in more than merely the fare.
This scrawny unshaven rickshaw wallah looks like any other — sleeves and trousers rolled up, slippers worn out, and malnourished. His struggle for a livelihood is as intense as any of his co-workers. He bargains hard to save enough for plain paranthas at the Gwyer Hall Canteen and braces for blows when the police raid to clear no-parking spaces. Yet, he finds time to blog his experiences — much like a captain of a galleon charting new waters.
Meet Gaurav Jain, the “postgraduate rickshaw-walla.” After graduating from Indian Institute of Mass Communication’s Amravati campus this year, Gaurav realised he needed to live the life of a poor person if he wanted to honestly critique public policy. So, on September 10, he hired a cycle rickshaw from Roop Nagar for Rs. 40 a day, giving his driving licence as collateral.
“Rickshaw-wallahs aren’t organised. There’s no union or leader. There’s no officially designated stand or fare. Market forces decide everything,” he explains. A long distance cyclist, Dwarka-resident Gaurav can cope with the strain, but was ignorant about the routes and fares. He learnt the hard way.
“On my first day, a man hired me at Pul Bangash to go to GB road (the hub of the capital’s sex trade). I didn’t know the fare, so I agreed for Rs. 25. But the route wasn’t just long but overwhelmingly crowded. I struggled to keep my balance, amidst vehicles scraping my rickshaw.”
Gaurav’s blog cycletorickshaw.blogspot.in has interesting anecdotes of life on the street. On October 2, when he turned up for work, he realised there wasn’t any. The irony of being robbed off livelihood on Gandhi Jayanti struck him. In his blog, he quotes Gandhiji’s talisman of asking one’s self, when in doubt, whether one’s action will be of any use to the “poorest and weakest man.”
He adds in his post, “Did the government ever apply this test to itself before declaring his birthday a National Holiday? Did they ask themselves if this step would be of any use to the poorest, weakest man that they claim to be so concerned about?”
Soon, he made new friends — rickshaw-wallahs, who mostly hail from Bundelkhand, Purvanchal, Bihar and Bengal. They dine, curse and celebrate together. Their adda is under the trees opposite Delhi University’s Gwyer Hall. “Most of my colleagues think I am a student who’s facing a family problem or something. Some students also comment that I don’t look like a rickshaw-wallah,” he says.
He decided to keep his little adventure a secret from his typically middle-class family. “I told my parents that I was volunteering at a friend’s coaching institute. They were mildly suspicious when they saw me go to work in slippers and old clothes, but they could never imagine that I am a rickshaw-wallah,” he says chuckling.
His cover was blown soon by the Delhi Police. Gaurav had been mildly assaulted by traffic police earlier too, and his tyre punctured, for waiting in a no-parking zone. Parking in a bus service lane is taboo, but in the absence of a stand there’s no place else. Most rickshaw-wallahs flee when a police van rolls in.
But, on November 2, he faced a particularly brutal attack by an overzealous assistant sub-inspector, who left him with a swollen face. The story broke in a leading English daily and followed up by the Hindi dailies. Gaurav is now a celebrity. Rickshaw-wallahs come to him with complaints of pharmacies selling them expired drugs, and “pretty customers” smile at him.
However, all hell broke loose at home and Gaurav ended up in a night shelter at Kabir Basti. Two nights later, his colleague, Sanjay Turi, brought him to his house — a 100 square feet tenement near Majnu ka Tila. “It was a humbling experience. Six people live in that room. They bathe in the open. Still, if anything’s saved after sending money home, they occasionally party. And they stick to desi (country liquor).”
Most rickshaw-wallahs earn Rs. 300 to 500 a day, depending on their location and the risks they are willing to take. For example, those who solicit customers within the Metro station earn more, but risk getting thrashed by the Central Industrial Security Force.
Gaurav’s now mended bridges with his folks and is back at home. He plans to try his luck at white-collar jobs from next month. He doesn’t have any plans to capitalise his experience, yet, and is content with the perspective he’s gained. He blogs: “When you are on the back seat of the rickshaw, a hot girl looks like a prospective mate… but when you are on the saddle, a hot girl only looks like a prospective customer! The similarity however is — you would still like to approach her to say, “Madam, rickshaw?”