The state's top politician calls it inhumane. Others call it a lingering symbol of colonial oppression. But Mukundlal Shah calls it an honest day's work.
For half his life, Shah, a wiry 60-year-old, has pulled a rickshaw through the noisy, dirty streets of Calcutta. For his pains, and his many aches, Shah earns about $2.50 a day.
"What's wrong with it?" he said, relaxing for a few minutes on a warm recent evening with some of his fellow rickshaw wallahs, as they are known.
"We're not robbing anyone. We're not thieves. We're not committing any crime," Shah said.
At the moment he isn't. But by the end of the year, if the state government has its way, Shah's job will be outlawed. The time has come, officials say, to close a chapter on a disgraceful practice that flourished when the British lorded over the people of this land as subjects of empire.
In modern India, advocates of the ban say, no man should have to bear another man practically on his back. After all, the Communists in China eliminated this mode of transport soon after assuming power more than 50 years ago, criticizing it as primitive and demeaning.
Communists -- albeit democratically elected ones -- also rule Calcutta, the only place in India where rickshaws still ply the streets. Like their Chinese counterparts, Calcutta's Communist leaders have shed much of their former ideology to embrace the free market, and hand-drawn vehicles don't jibe with the image of a shiny new city eager to welcome foreign investors.
"It is a symbol of human bondage; it is inhumane. . . . It must be stopped immediately," Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, chief minister of West Bengal state, was quoted as saying in August, when he announced his intention to phase out the vehicles. "Many Westerners associate Calcutta only with the world of beggars, lepers and rickshaw-pullers. They are wrong. Calcutta is vastly different from that flawed notion."
In some ways, this onetime capital of the British Raj has edged into the 21st century. Internet cafes beckon, high-rise hotels gleam, cell phones seem permanently attached to many a resident's ear, and Bollywood movie stars flog soft drinks on giant billboards.
But poverty remains rampant in the slums where Mother Teresa ministered to the sick and needy. Barefoot children in rags roam alleyways, while trash and filth turn into smelly outdoor heaps in the rain. Among the downtrodden are Calcutta's estimated 18,000 rickshaw drivers, most of whom belong to India's lower castes and are migrant laborers from Bihar, a dirt-poor neighboring state.
Bodies glistening with sweat, they haul their passengers on their toothpick legs along the side streets they've been confined to since the government ordered them off congested main roads a few years ago. A mile-long ride costs barely more than a quarter.
The practice has also caught the notice of human rights groups, which have weighed in on the issue -- but not necessarily as one might imagine. While acknowledging that the sight of men toiling like beasts of burden presents "an uncomfortable picture," charitable organizations such as Action Aid and the Calcutta Samaritans oppose the rickshaw ban because of the consequences of throwing thousands of the city's most desperate out of work.
State officials did try to clear the streets of rickshaws about a decade ago, but were forced to back down after an outcry of opposition. Many here expect the newly announced ban to founder as well, or at least to languish unenforced until after elections next spring.
Rickshaws first appeared in Calcutta around the turn of the 20th century, an import from neighboring China. Updated forms considered less morally troubling -- cycle rickshaws or motorized versions -- course through the city's streets nowadays, but the hand-pulled originals have shown surprising staying power.
Their backers describe them as a cheap, nonpolluting means of traveling short distances, especially for residents who cannot afford cars or cabs.
Certainly the rickshaws represent lifelines for their pullers, who are generally men over 40 with families to support back in their home states. Many drivers work up to 12 hours a day and live on the streets or crammed in with their fellow pullers in rickshaw garages. They suffer from loneliness, alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases, and are regularly harassed by police.
Shah plans to stay on the job as long as he can, unable to think of what he might do instead after 30 years of huffing, puffing and hauling Calcuttans around the city.
His hair has thinned, his beard is grizzled, and in a cushier job he would be looking forward to a happy retirement about now. As it is, it's unclear which will catch up with him first -- the law or his own aging body.
"I can't run as fast as I used to," he said.