Cycle rickshaws: Poor man's lifeline in Bangladesh
May 14, 2007 - 7:59:31 AM

Dhaka, May 14 - One of the first things that attract the attention of a foreigner here is the colourfully decorated cycle rickshaws, the lifeline of the common man, on which about 10 percent of the 140 million-plus population of Bangladesh depends for transport.

Rickshaws were introduced in Dhaka some 70 years ago, and today millions of commuters in this country rely on them for their daily transportation.

According to a rough estimate - senior citizens say there are so many rickshaws that even the government offices cannot provide exact figures - there are between two to four million cycle rickshaws in Bangladesh.

In Dhaka city alone there must be approximately one million.

The rickshaws here are different from those in India and Pakistan - they are taller and narrower.

However, they are far more attractive. The owners painstakingly decorate their rickshaws with paint, colourful plastic cutouts, small toys or even draw pictures on the hood and any visible surface.

They also provide the cheapest mode of transport for short distances, and the fare is always negotiable. You just have to pay taka 8-10 to travel one kilometre -.

That these rickshaws hold a special place in the hearts of Bangladeshis is obvious. One such tastefully decorated brand new rickshaw is kept on an illuminated pedestal in the main lobby of Dhaka Sheraton.

It has 'Ma' - painted in bold in Bangla on one side of the hood. The rickshaw has been in the hotel for four years and, in many ways, is an icon of Bangladesh.

These three-wheeler rickshaws ply in hill areas too, like the Chittagong hill tracts in the south and Sylhet in the east and Garo Hills in Mymenshing in the north.

The people plying them are those who have come to Dhaka in search of better livelihood.

Mohammed Babul Sikdar, 25, is a young rickshaw puller who came to Dhaka all the way from Phool Baria village in Mymensing district, about 180 km from here, to earn some more money.

'I came here about seven-eight years ago to earn my bread,' the pan-chewing Sikdar told IANS rather shyly.

'On an average, I earn taka 300 in a day. Out of this I give taka 100 as rent to the mahajan - every day, so I hardly save anything,' he said, taking a breather under a tree in Banani, one of the more upmarket areas of Dhaka.

Sikdar has just his wife with him, but there are millions of rickshaw pullers who have large families with often more than one family member pulling a rickshaw.

And the cost of a new rickshaw is prohibitive - anything between taka 8,000-12,000 - beyond the reach of the millions who sweat for hours every day pulling the heavy load.

'The cost of a new rickshaw is just too much. I cannot afford to buy one,' said Sikdar, resignedly.

Many people are moved by the sorry plight of these rickshaw pullers. They say the administration and the governments over the years have done little to help them.

'Some of these people are so poor that the head of the family and his son pull rickshaws to sustain the family,' said Towhidul Hassan, a security man at the Dhaka Sheraton hotel.

'But even the income from two men is sometimes not enough. They end up spending all their earnings on daily needs. They can hardly save, or afford to buy a rickshaw themselves,' said the young Hassan.

There is another type of rickshaw here, minus the hood. The main purpose of this kind is to carry goods, but they also carry passengers.

This rickshaw is also converted into a drinks trolley for players during international cricket matches as was done during the two One-day Internationals against India here this week.

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