Bilaspur, December 2003. Three things are found in abundance in Bilaspur, so the saying goes – ‘kansa’, ‘kosa’ and ‘kodh’, i.e. copper, (kosa) silk and leprosy. To this list the new visitor may add the non-alliterative but nonetheless plentiful cycle-rickshaw. Of course Bilaspur is not unique in the multiplicity of these contraptions for transportation – what is surprising instead is the vociferousness and enterprise of the rickshaw-wallah in this city. Waiting outside all day for trains to arrive, the rickshaw-wallahs will often enter en masse into the railway station lobby to recruit passengers. Ahead even of the aggressive auto-drivers.

Pic: Ashima Sood Rickshaw by night, at Chingrajpara slum, Bilaspur. Pic: Ashima Sood.

The cycle-rickshaw stand at the railway station is the workplace for a wide swathe of Bilaspur city’s male population. Many others make their living by commuting daily from rural areas in Bilaspur district and outside it to hire and drive a rickshaw for half-day stretches. Still others arrive regularly for short stays during which they may sometimes find rough shelter at the garage where they hire their rickshaws. The few ones unlucky enough not to find such accommodation must make the rickshaw their bed under the stars.

In a sector characterized by notoriously variable earnings, rickshaw drivers work hard for their daily earnings. Yet along with vending/hawking, rickshaw-driving continues to be one of the largest self-employment segments of Bilaspur’s informal sector. A survey conducted at the end of 2001 in Chingrajpara by ActionAid found that 28 per cent of the surveyed population reported its occupation as ‘cycle-rickshaw puller’, making it the second largest occupational category after unskilled labourers (and the largest occupational category for men).

The so-called ‘garages’ provide a livelihood of first resort to short-term and longer term migrants, and others. For a hire charge ranging from Rs.10 for a half-day rental to Rs.20 for 24 hours, these garages supply the capital component of the rickshaw-driver’s business. They also supply, depending on the size of their operation, varying levels of maintenance support to the rickshaw. (Rs.44 is approximately 1 US$)

Those who know to look can spot these dusty roadside establishments everywhere - close to slum areas but also in some of Bilaspur’s more middle-class localities - identifiable by the cluster of night-time rickshaws parked nearby. In other North Indian cities, most notably the capital, the corrupt and stringent enforcement of a law that attempts to limit the number of rickshaws an individual may own has been the locus of a remarkable public policy campaign led by organizations such as Lokayan and Manushi.

In Bilaspur however a somnolent administration allows garages to function in peace. The result is an unhindered burgeoning of the cycle-rickshaw sector, visible in the proliferation of garages, mostly miniscule. Fully half of the 176 garages I surveyed in the city owned less than 12 rickshaws, a quarter owned less than seven. Many others hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the city are nearly impossible to track down.

The cycle-rickshaw sector in Bilaspur and elsewhere has many of the features of what the International Labour Organization (ILO) calls the informal sector (also sometimes called the unorganized sector) – a sector defined by unregulated working conditions, small-scale operation, and conditions of nearly free entry. Conservative estimates of the percentage of non-agricultural informal sector employment in India start at 55.7 per cent. (Figures cited in a OECD/UNESCAP/ADB workshop on the informal sector in Bangkok in May 2004.)

And to understand the forces that impinge on the livelihoods of Chingrajpara’s rickshaw drivers it becomes necessary to go beyond the slum's boundaries.

I. The resident

Late one January morning in 2004, thirty-year old Raju, having taken off sick from work, hangs around as his wife’s Mahila Samiti meeting convenes in a small clearing near his home in Asha Abhiyan’s Nodal II construction area. (Asha Abhiyan, is a slum development project, initiated in the early 1990s by Harsh Mander, then Bilaspur's Commissioner. It was reinitiated when he became a country* director at ActionAid India.) Like many of Bilaspur’s rickshaw drivers Raju, a father of four, is a deceptively small, wiry man. Unlike four-fifths of Bilaspur’s rickshaw drivers however, Raju owns his own rickshaw, bought second-hand for Rs. 2200.

As a holder of the patta (title) to the plot of land on which his pucca house stands, Raju is lucky in other ways as well. Yet he himself does not feel very lucky. Indeed given half a chance he would shift to another occupation. It is a rare day indeed when he makes Rs 100; the average earnings for 8 hours of work are closer to half that. On most days he says he feels feverish and suffers an assortment of aches and pains. It is too much hard work, he says, and too much competition, thanks to all these outsiders driving rickshaws. According to Raju, it definitely was better before the mushrooming of garages. In fact, he has a simple policy expedient to offer to improve the livelihoods of the rickshaw-drivers – shut down all garages, period.

Similar hostility veiled or otherwise, emerge in focus groups of rickshaw drivers in other slums across the city. (Focus groups are discussions as part of the Asha Abhiyan project to elicit views.) The more the garages, the more the competition among them, and the easier it is for any Ram, Shyam and Salim from outside to hire a rickshaw and drive it on the city’s streets, often at cut-rate fares. Some of the more sophisticated members of these groups, many of whom arrived in Bilaspur city in similar circumstances and recognize that a majority hire rickshaws from the garages as well, are more circumspect.

All of them rightly bemoan the absence of a viable union to champion the rights of the rickshaw drivers against both the garages and the occasional brutality of the railway police. And the grumbling about migrants continues from there – among other things, about the thieving habits of the migrants that besmirch the occupation as a whole.

II. The commuter

The day we meet him at Bilaspur’s railway station Amrit Satnami is sporting a brand-new dress shirt of obvious good quality, gifted to him he claims by a ‘seth’ that he drove over to the bus stop area. Dubious as his story sounds, his manner has something guileless about it, bringing to mind that untranslatable Hindi word ‘santoshi’ - content, at peace with himself and the world. After a lot of thought he decides the occupation he would like most would be to run a ‘suhag bhandar’, a cosmetics shop, in his village where he already owns some 3-4 decimal land (0.002 hectare). Although we have introduced ourselves as a team of researchers, he quite belatedly realizes that we may have links to sarkari benefactors and concedes it would be nice to have his own rickshaw.

Forty and utterly illiterate, Amrit has commuted daily by train for 7-8 years from his home in Arjuni, Thana Akalta, district Janjgir to Bilaspur city to drive a rented rickshaw. On days when he works too late or is otherwise indisposed to return home, he sleeps out in the open on a rickshaw at the garage. The Rs 60-70 Amrit saves after a day’s driving is about double what his wife makes as an agricultural labourer in his village. Together their earnings support their family of six. Though a gift rickshaw would no doubt augment Amrit's assets, it is not clear how in itself, it would significantly affect his occupational choices, or for that matter, the livelihoods of resident rickshaw-pullers. What appears indisputable is that the presence of a garage supplies a convenient if less than adequate source for earnings to him and others like him.

It is also unsurprising that although one of Bilaspur’s very few active rickshaw-pullers unions operates near the railway station, Amrit is uninterested in it. As a migrant, the living he makes is as is an improvement over what he would have made in his village; he neither feels a stake in the benefits the union offers nor does he have the time for rallies and political action. In turn the union does not make the effort to include the likes of Amrit Satnami.

In unrestricted entry, high mobility situations characteristic of the informal sector, mobilizing and organizing workers' movements is recognized to be a feat requiring considerable skill and dedication. Still, the rickshaw-drivers need organization and representation not only to resist the occasional, usually unsuccessful, attempts at collusion by garage-owners but also to pressure the state into modifying its long-standing policy of malign neglect.

Even the government's existing Janshri Group Insurance scheme for accidental death and dismemberment, indifferently administered by the municipal corporation languishes for lack of efficient promotion.
 I  •  Chingrajapara's working women
II  •  Hopscotch and skipping school
An excellent example of the kind of concrete government action that is required was provided by an articulate rickshaw-driver Raju Dindore in a focus group discussion. The stresses and strains of a life of hard physical labour take their toll on the productivity of the rickshaw drivers past a certain age, Dindore pointed out. Why not institute an early 'pension' scheme for rickshaw-drivers, say at age 45 or 50, to compensate for that loss?

Why not indeed. Except that even the government’s existing Janshri Group Insurance scheme for accidental death and dismemberment, indifferently administered by the municipal corporation languishes for lack of efficient promotion. Many rickshaw-drivers I spoke to expressed skepticism that their annual Rs 10 premium payment would yield a real security to their families. (It is instructive to note that under this scheme, the stipulated mode of payment of benefits to families - that are unlikely to hold savings accounts in formal banks – is an account payee cheque.)

This is precisely where civic association, especially some form of trade union can perform an important function – it can create a more effective demand for public services by stepping in as via media between the state and the informal sector worker.

III. The migrant

The case of Ramu Chaudhary, who I met in my first visit to Chingrajpara during 2002, throws helpful, and poignant, light on the livelihood issues that confront the rickshaw driver and the thorny questions they raise.

Pic: Ashima Sood Ramu and Sheela, the young couple. Pic: Ashima Sood.

Ramu Chaudhary was twelve when at the invitation of a maternal uncle he first left his home in Madhubani village near Patna, Bihar to go work 'for a year or two' in a coal mine near Korba, Chhattisgarh. But his path away from home led him next to Delhi, where he found work in a tent house. At Rs.100 daily his was the highly precarious task of lighting outdoor weddings. After eight years of Delhi, driven by restlessness or something else, he arrived in Bilaspur. It was while working at a roadside 'hotel' that he met Sheela and convinced her to elope with him. That was when he turned for a livelihood to rickshaw-driving, among other things.

Rokando, Chingrajpara’s illegitimate sister settlement, is where the young couple now live, in a low-roofed bamboo pole and plastic sheeting structure they recently constructed with a loan of Rs.1000 from a neighbour. Despite the more than fifteen years of migrancy that Ramu claims he looks no more than twenty or so. Living a life that thrusts most others quickly into adulthood and past that into old age, Ramu and Sheela still retain a surly, slightly sleepy air of adolescence. They are still childless after three years of marriage; neither knows how old they are. Their relationship seems to have retained a kind of childlike parity – when asked, Sheela still reports her maiden name, Sahu. Their replies to most of my questions are monosyllabic; unlike most others, they are unmoved by researchers' curiosity about their lives. From the sparse details they provide me however the only certain fact is their desperate poverty.

Some days Ramu goes to the casual labour market at nearby Sanichari; when he gets no work, he goes rickshaw-driving in the afternoon. Earnings in either direction are uncertain – while a labour contractor still has not paid Ramu the Rs.300 he is owed for a construction project, driving a rickshaw sometimes gets Ramu up to Rs.100 and other times, after paying the garage owner, nothing. To the corner grocer they owe Rs. 30. To the neighbour Rs.1000 plus Rs.40 monthly interest. Savings are sparse. Lacking a ration card, they buy food on a daily basis. About half a week out of every month, they do not have enough to eat.

The municipal authorities meanwhile are planning to move Rokando residents lock, stock and barrel to a location eight kilometres away. For daily wagers like Ramu the daily commute is forbidding. When he suggests his usual solution, another migration, Sheela resists. He has left his family far behind but her own aging mother still lives in Bilaspur.

The tale of Ramu and Sheela is more than a chronicle of woes. Though he has been in Bilaspur for some seven years, Ramu is essentially rootless in his milieu. While most of the urban poor, particularly in authorized slums, manage a degree of adjustment to their circumstances, Ramu is asunder in economic uncertainty. He is not a ‘vulnerable’ section of society except by the fact of his ignorance and his migrant status. And the problems of those like Ramu and Sheela are too complicated, too well-entrenched to be done away by one stroke of governmental munificence. Instead the discrete pieces that add up to their difficulties require a larger, less specific solution.

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A well-functioning civic association such as a rickshaw-driver's union may do much for Ramu. For pointers we may consider SEWA, one of the world's most successful informal sector unions, operating in a range of sectors from bidis to construction labour. For the women who are its members, the movement provides not merely advocacy services but also context, the solidarity and social support that the self-employed worker often misses. In this scenario, it is possible to imagine the union as being less a divisive tool of the native against the migrant and more as a network resource available to all.

Other practical inspiration may be found in the hoary past of Delhi’s earliest rickshaw-puller unions. Rajendra Ravi of Lokayan’s Jan Parivahan Samiti recounts the case of one such union that set up a rickshaw cooperative in the 1950s that as an alternative to garages hired out rickshaws at nominal charge and provided repair and maintenance services. While the experiment did not last into the present it survived a good number of years till Delhi’s explosive growth put an end to it. For the worst-off rickshaw-drivers like Ramu, migrants trying to start a life in Bilaspur, for whom the hire charges from garages can be a burden, a model like this suggests an inclusive solution.

But even a union that accounts for the realities that rickshaw-drivers of Bilaspur, resident and migrant alike face, needs an issue to rally members around. The railway station’s Rickshaw Sangh has wrested small-scale concessions from the railway authorities but its reach remains constrained by politicking and top-down leadership. Local leaders of established unions such as INTUC have attempted the task of mobilization and surrendered. So far, unions have worked on finding an enemy to unite the drivers against – the garages, migrants, government authorities. However, for self-employed workers the task of defending their interests against the outside world must be accompanied by the much more intricate project of building a consciousness. The next round is awaited.

* * *

Postscript, March, 2005: Rokando is still there and although the government continues to plans its move further away, the Asha Abhiyan staff are working to get the settlement authorized and construct pucca housing for the slum dwellers.