Rickshaw Rights

The World Bank vs. entrepreneurs


When floods submerged parts of Bangladesh last monsoon season, thousands of villagers fled to the capital, Dhaka, where many found work driving the city's 89,000 rickshaws. Now those drivers are being driven off their territory again—this time by World Bank–backed bureaucrats who want to push the bicycle taxis off the city's main thoroughfares.

Dhaka banned rickshaws from Mirpur Road in December, and the local transport board plans to restrict other major arteries soon. The move is part of a larger Dhaka Urban Transport Project, funded by the World Bank, that's meant to support the "development of a new and modern infrastructure." Opponents say the project favors the rich, who can afford private cars and taxis, over the poor and middle-class Bangladeshis who own, operate, and ride in rickshaws.

"It's a flat-out class issue," says Walter Hook, executive director of the Institute for Transport Development Policy. According to Hook, rickshaw operators are facing a precipitous drop in income, while passengers, especially women and schoolchildren, have fewer if any transport options.

The World Bank has elsewhere advocated the use of environmentally friendly, space-efficient, nonmotorized transport. A 1994 document from the bank's transportation development department waxes rhapsodic over the benefits of motorless mobility, saying that such vehicles "provide a flexible form of transport where it is needed most–in activities that are essential to the basic quality of life."

Flexibility is exactly what the World Bank is denying Dhaka's residents by privileging a "modern" city over a free one.