Despite rapid increase in the population of motor vehicles, the last generation of rickshaw pullers survive to become part of temple island’s history
While the world has moved on to faster, more expensive ways of travelling, there is a group of ageing men in Srirangam who still pedal their customers over short distances. While the surviving group of cycle rickshaw drivers may soon become part of the temple island’s history, they themselves remain nonchalant. “From nearly 200 rickshaws, we stand reduced to less than 50 ,” says Chinnayan, who adds that it wouldn’t be too long before even these vanished from the roads. Among the oldest rickshaw drivers in Srirangam, Chinnayan has witnessed Tiruchi’s transition from using bullock carts and cycle rickshaws to autos and two-wheelers.
The rickshaw men at Srirangam have managed to survive the vehicular onslaught by sticking to their neighbourhood: “We depend on the residents here who make it a point to visit the temple at least once in a day,” says R. Selvaraj, another old timer. They do only short trips between five to six kilometers in and around Srirangam, and charge almost half the price of an auto ride, he adds.
A combination of factors like the temple, wider roads, lesser vehicular traffic and the short distances have made it viable for the cycle rickshaws of Srirangam to stay on. “However, elsewhere in Tiruchi, cycle rickshawdrivers probably couldn’t survive the rapid increase in population and motor vehicles,” he believes. Today, the only other places where cycle rickshaws can be spotted are the main guard gate and Gandhi market areas.
The steep rise in fuel prices, the absence of bargaining battles and the fact that they are clean modes of transportation have tipped the scales in favour of the cycle rickshaws of Srirangam. “I’d rather take a cycle rickshaw than an auto because they are cheaper and safer,” says N. Raghavan, who added that auto drivers charged minimum fare of Rs.40 irrespective of distance. For R. Sathya, the manual labour involved and the age of the drivers (55 to 60 years) makes her want to give them the money they ask for. “Besides, it does make you feel like you’re helping the environment in your own little way, every time you take rickshaw ride.”
Despite the continuing flow of customers, the rickshaw drivers manage to make only Rs.100 to 150 in a day. “Many of us here drive rented rickshaws and pay twenty rupees per day as rent,” says Xavier. The fact that most parents have switched to auto from rickshaws to take their children to school, has reduced their income further. “We try to compensate by doing trips throughout the day and also by occasionally working as daily wage labourers,” he says.
With most of their children working or studying, the rickshaw men know they are probably the last generation of cycle rickshaw drivers in Srirangam. “Though I studied up to class XI, I was more fascinated by the bullock cart, and later the cycle rickshaw when I was young,” says Chinnayan. The business, according to him, was so brisk back then that it was almost a good career option. “But now it’s nowhere close.”