Fuel Prices Boost Cause of S. Asia's Maligned Rickshaw
Saturday, June 28, 2008
NEW DELHI -- The bicycle rickshaws that weave through New Delhi's narrow lanes have long been scorned by authorities here for congesting the city's already fierce traffic. The creaking carriages crawl alongside luxury sedans, book hawkers, horse-drawn carts, hulking buses and cows.
In this city and the other quickly modernizing capitals of South Asia, governments have called the rickshaws backward, embarrassing symbols of the Third World.
Now, however, in a time of $7-a-gallon fuel in New Delhi and growing concerns about pollution, environmental activists and transportation experts are pushing back against rickshaw critics. And rickshaw cyclists are seizing the moment to tout the virtues of their trade.
"My rickshaw is my life. It's very cheap for my passengers," said Saurabh Ganguly, a 27-year-old rickshaw cyclist whose shirt was sticky with dirt and grime. He proudly observed a knot of traffic where about 50 rickshaw cyclists were jangling their bells, pressing their horns and zigzagging past lumbering buses belching plumes of black soot. "We don't even pollute," Ganguly said. "We should be allowed to survive."
Survival has been tenuous for bicycle rickshaws here. Last year, New Delhi banned them in the old walled neighborhood known as Chandni Chowk, one of the capital's most ancient and crowded shopping bazaars, as well as on main roads. While the ban has not been aggressively enforced, rickshaw cyclists say they often pay bribes to keep working.
An international nonprofit group, the Initiative for Transportation and Development Policy, challenged the ban in India's Supreme Court this month, saying current economic and environmental conditions have made rickshaws more necessary than ever.
"We must save the cycle rickshaw drivers. Look at the soaring fuel price hikes," said Nalin Sinha, program director for the group's New Delhi office.
"These bikes are wonderful alternatives. They provide an affordable, smog-free choice," Sinha said. "But unfortunately, when the whole world is talking about the environment, we in South Asia are talking about 'development.' We somehow think we are better if we have hordes of swanky cars."
There is anecdotal evidence that ridership has increased in some South Asian cities as customers look to save on transportation costs. Sinha said his group is studying the issue.
New Delhi's Center for Science and Environment is also pushing for the court to overturn the ban in Chandni Chowk. The group has pointed to increases in the city's pollution and in the number of children with asthma, blaming the growing number of motor vehicles. India's economic boom is adding nearly 1,000 cars a day to the capital's streets.
"We should be building bike lanes to provide the cycle rickshaws a humane driving area for many reasons. Let's face it, fuel prices are only getting higher, and here we have an alternative right in front of us," said Vivek Chattopadhyaya, the center's pollution researcher. "If we keep banning them, we will regret this in future generations."
Some activists in India cite the increasing number of bicycle rickshaws being used in cities such as London, Paris, New York and Washington, often in neighborhoods with high congestion and heavy foot traffic. Local governments have welcomed the rickshaws as environmentally friendly alternatives.