The question “why did you became a rickshaw-walla?” still gives me a tough time. Simply put, I just wanted to know what it was like to be on the other side of the fence; to experience poverty. Going through theses and research papers on the subject seemed too daunting. Also I have realised, our perspectives don’t really change from what we see, hear or read. They change dramatically when we experience things first hand. It sometimes happens in an instant when our skin actually feels the sweat and blood.
With no diploma or internship in rickshaw pulling my ‘on the job’ training started on 10 September 2012. The first thing I learnt was – things are always daunting until you begin. I was highly skeptical and jittery-legged till the last moment. Thankfully I didn’t take a u-turn before reaching the rickshaw garage in Roop Nagar, where I was able to rent a rickshaw for Rs 40 a day. However, it is one thing to rent a rickshaw and quite another to woo passengers. You’ve gotta have some good marketing skills and killer instincts for that. Especially at the Metro Station where only the fittest and shrewdest survive.
I barely knew the routes or fares when I started. On asking for help, a vetral colleague suggested that I be honest about my naïveté. “Ask the customer to guide you and leave the fare to his discretion. Eight out of ten times you will meet genuine people who will give you the right fare and those who won’t will teach you how much to quote the next time,” he said. And he was right.
Despite the fact that the world is getting more suspicious (especially the governments, who are now spying on their own citizens), trusting people is one of the biggest favours you can do to yourself. You will learn faster and make some amazing friends in the process. I of course did meet those who took me for a ride (quite literally) all the way till Chandni Chowk for a meager 25 rupees. But I also met generous people who paid me 100 bucks instead of 20, leaving me stupefied.
They say “patience is a virtue” and delhiites don’t have it. However the profession of a rickshaw walla makes you as patient as a filmmaker shooting a snow leopard! Hours pass while waiting in front of colleges in serpentine queues, which move forward with glacial speeds. Unfortunately, your time has no value, not even five rupees. For a student coming out of the gate, you are not someone who has been waiting for her for the past one hour. She will still haggle or at best, pay the usual.
Due to the large numbers of rickshaw-wallas in the campus, there is more supply than demand, which has made students prolific bargainers. Bargaining is not bad in itself but its’ extent and context is what baffles me. It is one thing to bargain hard for a pair of jeans in Kamla nagar market on which the retailer still earns a good profit. It is quite different to bargain for 5 or 10 rupees when the rickshaw-guy quoted you a decent fare…and you know it.
But some students did impress me. One day, a group of five girls came out of the Metro Station and as most friends, they insisted on sitting together. The girls were trying to somehow fit in when one of them said, “arre yar kuch to rehem karo, vo bhi insaan hi hai.” She along with her friend took a separate rickshaw.
Barring few exceptions, the students are indeed held very high in the eyes of Rickshaw-wallas. There is a sense of awe as most of them are uneducated and know its consequences. They wonder about what it is like to study in a college. I hope that gives you some reason to not crib about missing your dream college. Also, North Campus students are politer than the rest of Delhi. I hardly came across any rude customer in my three months. But what students fail to do, is accomplished by the Delhi Police with aplomb. They are experts when it comes to telling the rickshaw-wallas where they belong. Puncturing their tyres, abusing them, thrashing them etc. are some of the ways they do it. For a rickshaw walla it is the lack of respect that irks them the most about this job, not the lack of money, food, home or inadequate rest.
Negatives are always outweighed by the positives. Without sounding like a PR agent of the SRCC College, I really appreciated their efforts to provide financial independence and dignity to rickshaw-wallas as part of their “Student in Free Enterprise” project. I was impressed with the design of their rickshaw, which added a cover for the rickshaw-puller from the blistering sun or rain. I hope more colleges will come up with such projects for other weak sections of our society; giving them a chance to live with their heads held high.
If your college doesn’t have one yet, start one. If that is difficult, join an NGO. Just do it! Because, like I said earlier things will always seem daunting until you begin.
This article was first written for “Fresher’s Handbook” 2013.
Fresher’s Handbook 2016 is coming soon!