After facing harassment and extortion at the hands of corrupt police and civic body officers over the years, the Capital’s rickshaw pullers can finally heave a sigh of relief. A far-reaching Supreme Court order in a case filed by an NGO has come to their rescue. It has put an end toimpounding and scrapping of their vehicles. However, the battle against officialdom which sees them as "vermin" continues....

Rickshaw-puller Shiv Kumar and his wife would be celebrating this Diwali with their two children at Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh. This is the first time in many years that he has been able to save some money to be able to go home for the festival and all this was made possible by a Supreme Court order in April this year which banned confiscation of cycle-rickshaws by either the police or the civic body personnel.

“I stay in Vishwas Nagar and take mattresses from Gandhi Nagar to different parts of the city while my wife works as a domestic help. I am able to earn about Rs.300 to Rs.400 on an average per day but what has made the difference this year is that now we are not charged money on a regular basis for plying our vehicles,” he said, short of breath as he stopped at Sarai Kale Khan to talk about his life.

Shiv Kumar resides in a small room for which he pays Rs.2,500 as rent. “I and my wife both work to save for our children. That is why we have kept them with our parents in Bahraich, otherwise who does not want to stay with his small children,” asked the 28-year-old.

Earlier, he said, almost Rs.300 per day was needed to pay as bribe to keep his rickshaw running. “There was constant fear of being nabbed at any crossing as all the areas were ‘no entry’ zones. But now no one harasses us. Only at night, sometimes, one is asked to shell out some money.”

His tale is shared by Parshuram, who regularly takes furniture from Kirti Nagar to East Delhi and Ghaziabad. “I used to pay about Rs.300 on a daily basis. But that harassment has now stopped,” he quickly summed up as he hailed down a truck to ferry his empty rickshaw back to Kirti Nagar from Ghazipur flyover. “I will now pay just Rs.50 for the ride back and hope to get another consignment during the day.”

The lot of such rickshaw-pullers and those who ferry passengers has improved in Delhi. They can now be seen on several main city roads, including national highways and Ring Road, almost all through the day.

This has been made possible by the Supreme Court order which upheld a High Court order and barred impounding of these vehicles. It was in a case filed by Manushi Sanghatan earlier that the High Court had in 2010 declared key provisions of the rickshaw policy as lawless and unconstitutional.

“Earlier lakhs of rickshaws were confiscated every year and released after extorting bribes. But the municipal corporation employees and the police no longer have the power to arbitrarily confiscate and destroy them. This has meant saving at least Rs.200 crore a year for rickshaw owners,” said Madhu Purnima Kishwar of Manushi, who has been battling for the cause of rickshaw-pullers and owners for the past 17 years.

On what prompted her to take up the cause, she insisted that “the most prominent influence on my life was that of Gandhiji and he stood for swaraj or self-governance with minimal State control. I always believed that liberalisation was far more urgent for the poor and advocated the need to dismantle the licensing regime.”

Ms. Kishwar said she was of the view that “the law of market” and “demand and supply” should decide the number of rickshaws or even vendors needed on the roads. “Their number remains directly proportional to the number of customers. If it exceeds, the revenue drops and the pullers tend to shift to other areas.”

The impact of the Supreme Court order has been enormous. The Delhi Traffic Police has stopped challaning or impounding rickshaws. Joint Commissioner Satyendra Garg told The Hindu that there was no legal provision available with the department now to prosecute the cycle-rickshaws.

However, Ms. Kishwar alleged that the police personnel still herd away rickshaws from various spots and even stop them unnecessarily for some bribe. “Otherwise the poor guy ends up losing time, and consequently money.”

Likewise, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi officials said the Commissioners in all the three civic bodies had issued clear directions to the staff not to impound any vehicles or they would invite contempt proceedings. “After that we are not touching any of these rickshaws,” said a South Delhi Municipal Corporation official posted with the Central Zone in Lajpat Nagar.

Despite such claims, some parts of the city, like Hauz Khas, which also has a metro station, remain surprisingly out of bounds for rickshaw pullers. The unwritten writ of the police and civic authorities is still running in keeping them out of circulation from “posh” areas.

Ms. Kishwar also alleged that in Lawrence Road and Punjabi Bagh private yards have come up where the vehicles are surreptitiously parked after they are illegally impounded. She added that other forms of corruption like collecting money from them at designated water trolleys, issuance of illegal licences to them and getting indirect favours like mobiles recharged were also being adopted by the corrupt personnel for fleecing the poor pullers.

More In: Delhi