At first look it appears like any other cycle-rickshaw. Until you allow the back-rest for the seat to fall over, like the back seat of your Maruti 800 or Alto car, and it takes the form of a six-feet-long bed. With this simple innovation, along with many other thoughtfully improvised solutions such as a mosquito net and a solar panel that fuels a reading light and an electric fan, a mobile charging port and an FM radio, the lives of rickshaw-pullers look set for a qualitative improvement, if this prototype of the cycle-rickshaw of the future catches on.

The project began with the recognition that 30 per cent of the homeless in Delhi are rickshaw-pullers, and worse still, many of them slept in their rickshaws due to lack of means to rent accommodation or access to night shelters, besides the fear of theft or confiscation of their vehicles. “The human way of sleeping is with your body stretched out. But the limitations of money and space handicap these rickshaw pullers. I have seen rickshaw pullers cradle into impossible and dangerous and physically harmful postures to be able to sleep in the existing cycle rickshaws,” says Dr. Amod Kumar of the Mother NGO, the nodal agency for homeless persons in the Capital.

With financial assistance from Mi-India, and designs done by Deshardt Solutions, this prototype also boasts of a folding sun shade, a sleeping bag, locker for storage under the seat, USB player, head lamp and tail lights, double ball-bearings in the wheels, and a pouch for keeping a water bottle.

The project also comes with the promise of turning over the ownership of the rickshaw to the puller after completing the payment of EMIs, through a microfinance model.

Their inclusion into financial services is another highlight of the project through Aadhaar registration, opening of bank account and PPF account, and health insurance subscription. The Mother NGO has helped over 3,000 homeless persons getting Aadhaar cards in Delhi till date.

The rickshaw costs nearly Rs.16,000; this is Rs.7,000 more than the conventional ones. Dr. Kumar says that Shikhar, an NGO, will roll out 100 of these new cycle-rickshaws shortly, and also handle the financing aspect. The EMI will be Rs.1,500 per month or Rs.50 per day. The collection mechanism is yet to be worked out. The Indian Overseas Bank has also shown interest in financing the scheme.

Dr. Kumar is clear that the project should not degrade into the current ‘thekedari’ model where a contractor typically owns 50-100 rickshaws and leases it out to the pullers in eight-hour shifts. “We want the puller to be the owner. We are not too worried about the puller defaulting or selling it off before the loan is repaid or pawning the parts or of theft happening. Such risks are there in every trade and will be only a negligible percentage.”

Meanwhile, designer Ankur Rawal of Deshardt Solutions is looking at solutions to further improve the rickshaw. “It weighs 15 kg more than the normal ones. Some ergonomic adjustments can still be made. We are also looking at lighter options besides iron for the frame.”

The project has also been propelled forward by the enthusiastic assistance of faculty and students of the Physics and History department of the St. Stephen’s College. While the physics students have worked on wiring and giving finishing touches to the prototype, the history students have done a detailed socio-economic survey of rickshaw-pullers.

What Dr. Kumar is more worried about is the support of the State. Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has consented to unveil the prototype officially on Tuesday (October 23). The South Delhi Municipal Corporation has promised to grant licences without delays.

However, the problem of parking at night and threat of confiscation and persecution by the MCD and police officers still looms large. St. Stephen’s students say that ideally cycle-rickshaws should be allowed to stand at the DMRC and MCD parking lots, which are empty at night, on a payment basis.

Even as the ongoing review of the DDA Master Plan – 2021 is recognising the valuable contribution of cycle-rickshaws in providing a cheap, non-polluting feeder service to mass transit hubs, this modified model promises a better life to these hardy, hard-working men on our streets.

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