Calcutta: Cutting Edge, Except for the Rickshaws

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Calcutta is one of the last places in the world where rickshaws remain a common mode of transportation. The International Herald Tribune reports that after 60 years of half-hearted attempts to ban man-powered taxis, the city is getting serious:

West Bengal's governing Marxists are moving cautiously. First, several major Calcutta streets were closed to rickshaw traffic. Then, more than 12,000 rickshaws were seized and destroyed. The policy of not renewing licenses has brought down the number to 1,800. The West Bengal chief minister, Buddhdeb Bhattacharjee, promises a total ban next year.

This is an incredibly stupid policy for a city with high unemployment and air quality concerns. Rickshaw opponents insist that India's rickshaw-driving poor are degrading themselves, and should be stopped for their own good. Their arguments are nearly identical to those against commercial sex work.

The paternalist argument may just be cover for the embarrassment felt by high-ranking Indian officials; streets full of rickshaws don't quite mesh with the image a developing city wants to project to the outside world. (While working at the Myanmar Times, I was told I couldn't submit pictures of women carrying baskets on their heads, for fear word would get out that Myanmar might have some cash flow problems.) The squeamishness must be that much greater in a city known chiefly for its abject poverty.

I've never been in a rickshaw, but I occasionally took a trishaw to work in Rangoon. Unlike the city's diesel-powered taxis, they didn't spew black smoke or deafen everyone in the surrounding area. They were nimble, too, managing to weave through cars stopped in interminable traffic jams. It seems that they're at least as useful in Calcutta, which is part of the reason attempts to ban them have yet to succeed: Recent monsoons have helped delay the ban, since rickshaws can navigate flooded streets more ably than trucks and buses.

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  1. I thought that when the Indian p.m. pointed out last year at the G-8 summit that developing countries’ emissions were so much lower than those in the first world, that it meant we were supposed to cut it out, not that they were going to try to catch up. Silly me.

  2. Rickshaw opponents insist that India’s rickshaw-driving poor are degrading themselves, and should be stopped for their own good.

    This sounds like one of the arguments against illegal immigration. The nativist looks out and sees people degraded by working for their bread. The good name of work is destroyed in America, too.

  3. Someone probably has a nice public-funded mass transit project they want to foist on the public. Got to eliminate the competition first and create a “need”.

  4. Cities trying to make a name for themselves as “world class cities” in the global capitalist order are always doing dumb stuff like this. It’s really no different than clearing out “Radio Row” to build the World Trade Center, or any one of a dozen cities that have wiped out their gritty but successful working waterfronts to build pretty parks. I especially like it when they build monuments to the fishing fleets they just threw out.

  5. It’s too bad we have fairly meaningless party names in America. I’d love to see an article containing a phrase like “Michigan’s governing Marxists…”

  6. Hostility to rickshaws has a long pedigree among lefties; check out George Orwell, in _Down and Out in Paris and London_. Orwell considers rickshaws an unneccesary luxury that create a high level of suffering in return for a small amount of convenience. He seems to think much the same thing about Western hotels and restaurants.

  7. “I especially like it when they build monuments to the fishing fleets they just threw out.”

    Damn, that is funny. Okay, who kidnapped Joe and replaced him with a capitalist?

  8. I didn’t RTFA but what part of West Bengal’s governing Marxists is Joe saying subscribe to the global capitalist order? According to Wikipedia West Bengal is home to the world’s longest-running democratically-elected Communist government. Sounds like the people have spoken.

  9. “West Bengal is home to the world’s longest-running democratically-elected Communist government. “

    In Communist India…the Capitalist rickshaws run longer, faster, and better.

  10. The irony is that this is exactly the sort of Marxist micromismanagement that will keep Calcutta a third world backwater. Even more ironic, if Calcutta abandoned it’s Marxist ways and embraced free market capitalism, by the time it became a world class city, rickshaws would be the most expensive means of getting around. They would become designer transit, “I’m rolling in it so deep, I can afford to throw away wads of it, and wherever I’m going it doesn’t matter when I get there, because my time is better spent making eye contact with the likes of you wishing you were me”.

  11. I first encountered rickshaws in Beijing, maybe fifteen years ago. They struck me as a terribly exploitative way to travel, and I had no intention of ever sitting in one.

    One evening a friend and I needed to travel several blocks to a restaurant, and were besieged by rickshaw drivers wanting – indeed, demanding – to take us there. My friend was willing but I repeatedly refused, in the face of several Chinese guys who were clearly becoming very unhappy with me. Finally my friend just mumbled, “Dude, they’re trying to feed families here. Pick one and get in, for god’s sake.”

  12. Calcutta is indeed a feverish swamp of doctrinaire Marxism.

    There is however another Indian state (I don’t exactly recall, but it’s in the south) with a nominally Marxist government that is quite prosperous. When one looks one finds the Marxism is…well…rather flexible.

  13. John

    In spite of some really profound differences I have with joe this is one area where I found myself in complete agreement once I started paying attention.

    As someone who appreciates finding common ground it has led me to take a much less confrontational stance with him. And, well, let’s just say, the differences keep it interesting. 🙂

  14. Exploitive?

    Rickshaw driving is not a Benny Hill skit.

  15. Exploitive?

    Rickshaw driving is not a Benny Hill skit.

  16. Isaac,

    I will agree with Joe on occasion and am sure to point the fact out when I do. I don’t think Joe is a bad guy although I have a feeling he thinks I am the focus of evil in the modern world.

  17. There is however another Indian state (I don’t exactly recall, but it’s in the south) with a nominally Marxist government that is quite prosperous.

    Kerala. It’s not all that prosperous, but its high level of remittance income keeps it from being as poor as West Bengal. Also, its literacy rate’s much higher than the national average.

    Like I mentioned a while back, the anti-rickshaw campaign is actually a little out of character for West Bengal’s state government. Unlike the Stalin-worshipping jackasses propping up the national government, the Marxists in the state government have been showing a modicum of economic sense as of late.

  18. It’s really no different than clearing out “Radio Row” to build the World Trade Center, or any one of a dozen cities that have wiped out their gritty but successful working waterfronts to build pretty parks.

    I’m sure they justified it as “getting rid of blight” or “spurring economic development in a depressed neighborhood” or something. The pretty parks probably attract more tourists than some ugly gritty waterfront.

  19. any one of a dozen cities that have wiped out their gritty but successful working waterfronts to build pretty parks.

    And even when they don’t wipe them out then put some kind of barrier up so you can’t see what’s going on, like they’re ashamed of how the city functions. Like Millennium Park in Chicago. I found watching the IC rail yard a helluva lot more awe-inspring than any emetic Frank Gehry architecture.

  20. Damn, that is funny. Okay, who kidnapped Joe and replaced him with a capitalist?

    Be careful John; there is a poster called joe here at H&R, and also a new Joe. They seem to have substantially different worldviews.

    ((JUST)) Another Lurker

  21. “I especially like it when they build monuments to the fishing fleets they just threw out.”

    Similarly, San Francisco wiped out the Fillmore Blues/Jazz district and several blocks of homes and public vegetable gardens in the 60s/70s, replacing them with housing projects and a bunch of ugly highrise condo complexes. Now the area is crime-ridden around the projects, the condos are not considered especially desirable places to live, and there are plaques in the sidewalks in front of places like Popeye’s Chicken and Subway, commemorating the jazz clubs that used to be there.

  22. from http://bss.sfsu.edu/urbanaction/ua2001/fillmore3.html

    “During our observations in the fall of 2000, parcels of vacant property and empty storefronts could be found along lower Fillmore Street mixed in with newer, out of scale buildings. This is in stark contrast to the building boom that was transforming the rest of San Francisco. While the City did contribute at least $100 million (nearly $550 million in today’s dollars) of public money in the area, other sources of investment are necessary to complete revitalization of the district (UCFSF 1963, B-2; SFRA 1964, 29).

    The City did take the Jefferson Company consultancy’s advice in designating the area a “Historic Jazz District” in order to attract businesses and tourists into the area (Jefferson 1994, 11). In Mayor Brown’s 1998 State of the City address he announced that $100 million in city bonds would be floated to help the area and that the Blue Note Jazz Club would be opening, along with another movie theater, on the vacant land between Ellis and Eddy Streets (Brown 1998, 5). But now, almost three years later, construction has not begun.”

  23. Two points:
    1. The small, very progressive town that I live in is trying to get rickshaws (actually, bicycle-powered ones) going in our town. We now have a fleet of 3 (privately owned), and it appears to be gaining in popularity.
    2. “Degrading”? No such thing. I always say that there’s no such thing as degrading work. All work is admirable.

  24. I especially like it when they build monuments to the fishing fleets they just threw out.

    One of your approved uses of emminent domain I take it…

  25. Reminds me of San Francisco trying to get rid of cable cars. They did try!
    Just another example of the powers that be (assholes) enforcing their “vision” upon those of us trying to just get the fuck around.

  26. This thread reminds me of the Southbank development here in Brisbane (Australia). In 1988 the city council levelled a large working-class area directly across the Brisbane River from the Brisbane CBD to make way for the World Expo 1988. I remember the World Expo as being shoddy and disappointing. This area is now a stretch of dull parklands which seems to be in a constant state of very expensive redevelopment to try and attract more visitors.

  27. In 1988 the city council levelled a large working-class area directly across the Brisbane River from the Brisbane…

    Ah, yes, we can’t have people of modest means enjoying life in places they can afford, can we?

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