Kolkata Rickshaws
Who are the rickshaw wallahs?

Photograph by: Ami Vitale, National Geographic April 2008

In 2003 two advocacy groups, Calcutta Samaritans and Action Aid India, published an exhaustive look at the lives of rickshaw pullers, A Report on Hand Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata. Investigators studied all aspects of the lives of these men--their birthplaces, education, finances, religion, health, sexual practices.

The study found that nearly half of the estimated 18,000 rickshaw wallahs are 40 to 60 years old and have spent half their lives pulling a rickshaw. Most are from Bihar, a poverty-ridden state north of West Bengal, and most are illiterate and unskilled. They took an economic step up by becoming rickshaw pullers in the Kolkata metropolis.

Even so, most pullers are homeless. Some take shelter in a dera, a meager building that's mainly a rickshaw garage; others simply live in their rickshaw or on the street. Rickshaw wallahs work for more than 12 hours at a stretch, earning an average of about 100 rupees ($2.50) a day. Their top priority is paying the rent on their vehicle, then buying food and shelter. They also frequently have to spend some of their money bribing the city police who enforce rickshaw licensing and other regulations. Whatever may be left over often goes to their families back home.

Not surprisingly, rickshaw wallahs suffer from poor nutrition and lack of preventive health care as well as the effects of pulling two to three times their weight. Injuries and chronic conditions are common, as are diseases that come from being exposed to air pollution and contaminated floodwaters.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation foreign correspondent Geoff Thompson offers an intimate glimpse into the complex historical, social, and human rights issues surrounding the life of a hand-rickshaw puller in his 2006 film India—Kolkata Rickshaws

For a transcript of that film, transcript


Calcutta Samaritans and Action Aid India. A Report on Hand Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata. Munshi & Associates, 2003.

Hand-pulled Rickshaws and Kolkata's Image

The Marxist-led West Bengal government has disapproved of hand-pulled rickshaws since before it rose to power 30 years ago, but in the past decade or so it has ramped up efforts to rid Kolkata of them. The current chief minister of the state and city authorities say they want to modernize Kolkata's image. They also claim to want to reduce traffic congestion: "We must be fair to the cars and buses that are left crawling because of the hand-rickshaws," a city official said.

Although the authorities have restricted the number of licenses issued to rickshaw owners to 6,000, an unknown number of illegal rickshaws still traverse the city's streets. Most pullers lease their vehicle, and their clandestine activities make it nearly impossible to know how many rickshaws or pullers there are. In recent years city police have admitted that up to 50,000 rickshaws may be on the roads. Historically two to three men rotate using the same rickshaw during a 24-hour period. A study done 25 years ago estimated that there were 100,000 pullers at work, but advocacy groups have recently said the number is probably closer to 18,000.

No rickshaw licenses have been renewed since 2006, and police campaigns to seize unlicensed rickshaws wax and wane. But the government has continued its war of attrition against the rickshaw wallahs, excluding them from main thoroughfares and exacting crippling fines. And officials often extort bribes from pullers by threatening to confiscate their vehicles.

The most significant government action was an amendment to the 1919 Calcutta Hackney Carriage Act passed by the State Assembly in December 2006 banning hand-pulled rickshaws. Minority political groups and human rights advocates have publicly opposed the ban, and a labor union representing pullers, the All Bengal Rickshaw Pullers, has challenged it in court. Kolkata's High Court has not yet ruled on the case, and for now, implementation of the ban is on hold.


Calcutta Samaritans and Action Aid India. A Report on Hand Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata. Munshi & Associates, 2003.

Court's Seal on Rickshaw Fadeout. Telegraph, August 7, 2007.

Calcutta HC Stays Ban on Handpulled Rickshaws. Indlaw, April 10, 2007.

Gupta, Subhrangshu. Pulling Out of the Past. Tribune, August 28, 2005

Sen, Jai. "The Sha Fu of Calcutta: The Past, the Present, and the Future of the Hand-rickshaw Pullers of Calcutta." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 30, no. 3 (1998), 37-49.

Kolkata Municipal Corporation. "Rehabilitation of Rickshaw Pullers." (October 2006).

Hand-pulled Rickshaws to Be Taken Off Kolkata Roads. Economic Times, November 20, 2006.

What Happens if the Ban Is Implemented?

In October 2006 Kolkata's city government issued a report, "Rehabilitation of Rickshaw Pullers," anticipating the passage in the State Assembly of the ban on hand-pulled rickshaws.

The report foresees many problems dealing with unemployed pullers, including how to identify them, since so many rickshaws are unlicensed. The "action plan" segment of the report stresses that "it has to be first decided whether or not to rehabilitate unlicensed rickshaw pullers." Another concern is "those who are too old or infirm for further employment." One local advocacy group, Calcutta Samaritans, estimated in 2003 that more than 9,000 people could be retrained.

The press has reported that local authorities have spoken about rehabilitation possibilities: Former pullers could be trained to drive auto-rickshaws, staff car parking lots, become self-employed as tailors, carpenters, or handicraft makers. They could also be given a reasonable payment as compensation for the loss of their livelihood.

The rickshaw wallahs are said to be reluctant to take the plunge into the unknown, but they'd also like to improve their lot to benefit their families.

Kolkata Municipal Corporation. "Rehabilitation of Rickshaw Pullers." (October 2006).

Calcutta Samaritans and Action Aid India. A Report on Hand Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata. Munshi & Associates, 2003.

Who Rides in Hand-Pulled Rickshaws?

Poor and middle-class residents of Kolkata rely on rickshaws for affordable, reliable transportation through narrow lanes in areas of the central city underserved by public transportation. And families often contract with a wallah to take their children to and from school, essentially making him a family retainer.

Rickshaws also provide delivery service for hotels, shops, and homes around the city, carting everything from food to feed 500 wedding guests to live chickens. Ladies on shopping jaunts depend on rickshaw wallahs to wait while they make several stops before returning home. Some people even use a rickshaw instead of an ambulance.

For these people and many others who depend on hand-pulled rickshaws, their removal from the streets would have an effect characterized by the advocacy groups as "catastrophic."

Calcutta Samaritans and Action Aid India. A Report on Hand Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata. Munshi & Associates, 2003.

Kolkata's Population Nears 15 million

The greater Kolkata metropolitan area is known in India as an urban agglomeration, defined as a "continuous urban spread of a town or city ... and its adjoining urban outgrowths." In November 2007 Population Reference Bureau experts estimated the population at 14.7 million (based on the assumption that Kolkata grew at the same rate it did from 1991 to 2001). A United Nations World Urbanization report ranks Kolkata third of India's three megacities and estimates that the population could reach 17 million by 2015. If that occurs, Kolkata's population will have more than doubled in 40 years.

Sharma, O.P., and Carl Haub. Is Delhi India's Largest City? Population Reference Bureau, November 2007.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Urbanization Prospects The 2005 Revision. (Working Paper ESA/P/WP/200, 2006).

Last Days of the Rickshaw

Many of the people who operate vehicles on the streets of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), in the state of West Bengal, India, seem oblivious to other vehicles, traffic regulations, and even their own self-preservation. This creates an especially perilous situation for the thousands of wallahs, men who pull the two-wheeled wooden carts, or rickshaws, that are unique to West Bengal’s capital city.

Hand-pulled rickshaws made their appearance in this former British capital over a century ago, and several thousand continue to ply the streets today. The vast majority of men doing the pulling are poor, aging immigrants from surrounding states. Their vehicles are no longer being manufactured, and as the parts wear out, they cannot be replaced. Thus, a way of life represented by the hand-pulled rickshaw—grievous to some, but essential to many—is nearing its end and will take with it a cultural icon of the 300-year-old city.

Trillin, Calvin. "Last Days of the Rickshaw." National Geographic (April 2008), 92-105.

Transportation Challenges for Kolkatans

Kolkata's densely populated city center is served by every manner of vehicle. People travel into the city by rail, which runs on and under its streets, as well as by subway, tram, bus, taxi, private car, motorbike, and bicycle. Then there are the van-, auto-, cycle-, and human-pulled rickshaws. Only a few of these vehicles are nonpolluting, a big concern in this megalopolis.
Twenty years of construction yielded a single metro line running just over ten miles (16.45 kilometers), although its aboveground expansion is referred to as a "work in progress."

Roads, expressways, and overpasses (or flyovers, as they're known locally) have slowly been expanded throughout the city, but the traffic congestion remains legendary. An analysis published in 2006 revealed that four to five miles (six to eight kilometers) per hour is the average travel speed on city streets during peak hours. Even foot traffic can be impeded by vending stalls and street hawkers.

Further snarling everything is what Sunkanta Chaudhuri, editor of Calcutta: The Living City, refers to as a "special class of privileged pedestrian--Â?the political procession or rally, that can throw the whole city's traffic out of gear for a day."


Metro Railway, Kolkata

Das, Nibedita. Critical Analysis of Shyambazar Traffic Intersection Area, Kolkata. Master's thesis, Kansas State University, 2006

Chaudhuri, Sukanta, ed. Calcutta: The Living City. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 1991.

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