A ride to remember

Sustaining Rural Econmoy Chhakra for everyone  

It was not an auto rickshaw, nor a tempo that rattles on our streets. With a stretch of fancy you could see it as a covered fish cart with more room for cargo. Whatever the three-wheeler did not have in terms of comfort — I counted 10-plus women travellers — it made up with pluck.

When it tried to overtake our car on a remote Saurashtra road, we could only stare at the odd piece of mobile equipment. When it stopped at the next village, I ran out. “Picture?” I waved the camera. The women smiled shyly, posed happily, and trooped off to work.

“It’s the chhakda, common in western Gujarat,” said Harshadbhai, our tour head. “Call it the commercial lifeline of rural Gujarat. They ferry just about everything.”

Ever travelled in one? He nodded. “My wife and I were driving from Rajkot to Morvi. At a deserted spot on the highway, the car just refused to move. I hadn’t checked the fuel tank indicator. Then this chariot came along with a cargo of sugarcane. We squeezed onto the front seat, got dropped at a petrol station; Saved by a passing chhakda!”

Distinguished by their colourful exteriors, packed interiors and uninhibited sound, they were a sight to watch. And they carried almost everything — people, livestock, agri-produce… We began a game of counting the passengers. How could a mechanism that looked as if it were assembled in a junkyard safely transport so many people?

The next morning, one rattled in with supplies at our forest lodge. Driver Rameshbhai, obviously tickled by my interest, readily agreed to part with the details. “It can carry nearly two tonnes of mangoes,” he said, giving me a tour of the chhakra (pronounced chhakda). “We take them to Gondal, Rajkot, Porbandar — Junagadh areas around 175 to 200 km away.” People? “Fifteen,” he laughed and added quickly: “It costs up to Rs. 1 lakh, depending on the engine, gearbox, brakes, decoration… It runs on diesel,” he said.

Made entirely with local material, it has two rods forming the frame and sheets covering the back. Its 6.5 diesel engine, of Greaves India make, is sturdy. “Re-cycled,” added Harshadbhai, proudly. “It’s easily-made, slanted at the back for safety. Junagadh alone has more than 5,000 of them.” The drivers are self-employed, hire-purchase chhakras with a down payment of Rs. 50,000. Licence? Gujarat State licence, said Rameshbhai, to drive what goes down in papers as “assembled rickshaws”.

I turned to > for more. Its illustrated report starts with Jugaad, a cannibalised vehicle that originated in the scrapyards of Meerut. Calling it a benchmark in Indian rural engineering, the site says: “It may be an eyesore, may not pass pollution norms, may break down frequently, and you wouldn’t be caught dead in its driver’s seat, but it certainly sustains the rural economy in some of the most populous states of India on the move.”

A new version

The initial chassis, engines and gearboxes were plucked-out parts of discarded Army jeeps. The chhakra, Jugaad’s three-wheeled cousin runs all over Gujarat, south Rajasthan and north Maharashtra.

You should try a chhakra once. With no proper shock-absorbers, jumping up from your seat is a guaranteed ‘joy’ of the ride. Another is the jolly noise, while the third is the smell of fuel.

Some may brand it “most dangerous thing that ever invaded our roads,” but the owners assure me: “That was when the roads were bad. Now the roads are very good.” It has its faults, but chhakra scores big on “frugal engineering, innovation and the spirit of survival, right at our doorstep”.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 8:07:37 AM |

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