A regular sight on city streets till a few decades ago, cycle rickshaws are fast disappearing, finds Asha Sridhar
Painter-turned-cycle rickshaw rider Das Anthony is 70 years old, has big brown eyes and is a bundle of optimism. He rides his 20-year-old cycle rickshaw around Mylapore and it's hard to miss the cover of his rickshaw which reads ‘racing' in fading, but bold red typeface.
“I still have the stamina to take six children with heavy school bags at a time in my rickshaw,” he says valiantly, patting the chipping wood of his rickshaw. He says that most cycle rickshaw drivers in this neighbourhood are over the age of 50 years.
When he started riding the cycle rickshaw twenty years back, business was good, or at least much better than it is today, he says. “My son works at a mechanic shed. I asked him not to take up my profession,” says Das. Most youngsters do not wish to ride cycle rickshaws because the remuneration is measly, and working conditions are tough.
Shanmugam Chinappa (63) has been driving cycle rickshaws in the same neighbourhood for as long as he can remember. When asked to put a number to it, he mutters, ‘40 years' after much thought. With failing eyesight, and no family, he wraps up his day before sundown. Earlier, there were over 150 cycle rickshaws in the city, but the number has come down with some riders passing away and some others selling their cycle rickshaws to become watchmen or took up other odd jobs, he says. While on a regular day, he earns anywhere between Rs. 150 to Rs. 250, during the monsoons, he does not venture out. “My brother and sister take care of me during those months,” he says.
Sixty-two-year-old Periasamy says that over and above the cost of maintaining a rickshaw, and managing daily expenses, he also has to spend on medicines for asthma which he developed three years ago. “I cannot stop riding, and nobody will pay extra just because I'm peddling all the way. People choose to go by rickshaw because they think it is a cheaper mode of transport,” he says. Subramani, another rider notes that while there are young people in the stand, most do not stay for long. “They get licenses to drive other vehicles, but we are too old to be granted licenses,” he says. He says that ever year, the number of vehicles plying from around Chennai Central Station is dwindling.
When asked about why he took up this profession, 30-year-old S. Murugan rattles off a litany of woes. “My father used to drive the horse cart, so I entered the profession. But what I earn is barely enough to run a family. If I had the means, I would give this up and drive an auto rickshaw instead,” he says. Though 32-year-old P. Balaji, who operates outside the Broadway bus depot is content with his meagre earnings, he wants his son to study and become an officer. His age, he says, has worked in his favour.
“In this part of the town, many still use cycle rickshaws and most prefer young drivers. Both my father and grandfather rode cycle rickshaws and since I did not know any other trade, I continued in their footsteps,” he says. “Only cycle rickshaws can go in the narrow lanes that are crowded,” he says. He believes that cycle rickshaws will continue to ply in the city, even after his time.
Keywords: cycle rickshaws