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.