Indoopush - CycleRickshawWallah Day

Rickshaw on the ice
“Cyclerickshawallah Day”

The Indoo Push Initiative (IPI) to create an annual day of recognition and solidarity for the 1,800,000 cyclerickshaw drivers of India, by driving an Indian Cyclerickshaw around the world.

In 1981, aged 26, I arrived for the first time in India — in Madras — intending to purchase a scooter and travel around the Sub-continent. I had heard the endless stories of the wonderful Indian Railways, and there was a coherence to their telling that grated on my sensibilities, where everyone seemed to have met the same beggar on the platform at Benares station, watched Indians abluting while perched like sparrows on the rails, and had been trapped in a compartment for three days with the same Indian businessman. Being a natural deviant from the common experience, I had reckoned that India by the roads might prove a less well worn adventure and reveal a less trodden perspective. This plan, however, went quickly awry when I found that scooters were like gold dust, with a year’s long waiting list for new ones, and second-hand ones apparently changing hands only on death-beds.

In the course of two week’s fruitless searching through the backstreets of the old city, the ‘Black Town’, I engaged many cyclerickshaws, one of which — much to my astonishment — had a tiny engine tacked on the back connected to the rear wheels. To give a broad comparison, this little motor produced about the same power output as a large household vacuum cleaner. The rickshaw driver, or ‘wallah’ as they are known, was not entirely relieved of his back breaking labour, since the mechanical addition still required him to pedal on occasions. But on the flat, and with no head wind blowing, this cyclerickshaw with engine attached, trundled forward at a very pleasant 15mph (25 kph), unaided. Albeit a very small and simple bolt-on addition, nonetheless its addition exactly alleviates the debilitating nature of hauling a cyclerickshaw, and provides the vehicle and driver with a new proficiency that is in sharp contrast to the lot of the vast majority of the 1,000,000 Cyclerickshawallahs who struggle to ply their trade in India.

For the most part, these Cyclerickshawallahs are sterile by the time they are thirty, and dead by the time they are forty five. Their position in both the economic and social order is at the cardboard bottom of urban shanty, and little has changed over the years. The nature of this work is such that — in horrifyingly simple terms — their physical output is not matched by the amount of food they can afford to feed themselves with, let alone their families. Towards the end their legs give out. They fizzle out like cheap fireworks.

On inquiry, it turned out that this little hybrid machine was a rare item, left over from a failed scheme initiated by Sanjay Gandhi in one of his crusades, the likes of which he is not remembered well for. This time, the political tonic was not mass enforced sterilization, but to purge the nation of the iniquities of cyclerickshaw driving. “Man Shall Not Pull Man.” was his well intended slogan. Following the well worn course of his grand ideas, the scheme collapsed into an organisational disaster, before being officially abandoned by Delhi government in its second year. The following year he also expired when his light aircraft failed to complete a loop-de-loop. It may appear a crass thing to say, but while his mother and family grieved, most of India heaved a sigh of relief.

Despite these dubious origins, the cyclerickshaw with engine attached was a minor stroke of genius. It was almost as fast as the scooter derived ‘autorickshaw’ (“touk-touks” or “phut-phuttees”), but less than a quarter of the purchase price, and only marginally more expensive to hire than the ordinary cyclerickshaw counterpart, which it easily out-performed in almost every respect. In consequence, the thin scattering of lucky cyclerickshawallahs who received engines as part of the original pilot scheme were unpopular with both of these competing forms of taxi, whose drivers quickly conspired to sabotage them. Added to this, there were powerful scooter manufacturers in Delhi whose autorickshaw interests were also threatened by this new development. They lobbied a hopelessly inept and corrupt government, finally reducing the pilot scheme into a tragi-comedy of broken engines and absconding cyclerickshawallahs — except for, that is, in Madras.

Madras (now Chennai) is the capital of Tamil Nadu, historically a state always happy to place a thorn in side of Delhi’s central government, ever since it successfully refused to ratify Hindi as the national language in 1948. Its Chief Minister — both a working class hero and a film hero of the Tamil cinema known as MGR — decided to disregard Delhi’s directive, and invoked the 1927 Hackney Carriages Act of Madras in order to permit these new hybrid cyclerickshaws (with engine attached) to continue plying their trade in his city. He had a colourful style of helping the poor in Tamil Nadu, which included a renown from giving Madrasi cyclerickshawallahs plastic ponchos every monsoon. This was perceived as a generous and thoughtful gesture, and in turn proved to be an excellent vote catching ploy. Besides all that, Madras was an engineering city, born and bred, and Madrasi people are proud of this heritage. They immediately appreciated and embraced this quirky little innovation. Twenty five years later, cyclerickshaws with engine attached are still to be seen, buzzing about the city, carrying people or baskets of fish, or perhaps loaded high with twenty sacks of cement.

*

On the strength of what might be called either a minor epiphany or a clutching at straws, I decided to have one of these cyclerickshaws with engine attached built from new, and to travel around India upon it with my cousin. In the mind’s eye, it was to be a Rolls Royce amongst cyclerickshaws. The construction process, however, turned out to be a devilish undertaking during which time there was a strange polarisation, where, the less the project progressed, the deeper I became immersed behind dark glasses in the romantic vision of the thing. I think it was perceived that I might give up and go home if this manufacturing process could be sufficiently protracted.

These dynamics collided when the sign painter materialised to paint the rear of the rickshaw passenger body, which at that point was little more than a piece of tin tacked onto a wooden frame. Lost in exploring this romantic vision (or perhaps it really was a flash of lucidity), I explained that “Madras to London” was to be emblazoned across the back, suitably heralding an idyllic scene of distant mountains with a river running to the sea­ — there is, of course, no saving some of us!

All excited from the magic conjured by these words, we found some newspaper offices, and the proposed endeavor received coverage in the national press. This transpired to be a mini-masterstroke, where the workshop owner was struck dumb to see his name in print in a national daily, and construction of this rickshaw was suddenly undertaken in real earnest. The workshop became all hammers and smoke, and two weeks of flamboyant Madrasi engineering expertise ensued. Finally, garlanded with flowers — new chrome and paint shimmering in the smoky shafts of sunlight that penetrated the broken corrugated roof — finally, the first Transcontinental Cyclerickshaw (with engine attached) emerged into the bright world. The following day, we slipped away at dawn, heading South along the pot-holed roads that wend their way into the temple lands of South India.

*

Four and a half years later, after an adventure of extraordinary, even supernatural twists and turns (I might add, a couple of spiritual switchbacks) — I hobbled the same Madrasi cyclerickshaw (engine still just attached) up the A3 into London, having covered under its own steam and mine, perhaps 15,000 kms. During that journey, which halted for a few years in Sudan, I had often fallen prey to the daydream of this great welcoming day at the completion of what had become a relentless self-fulfilling prophesy. But in the final instance, I found myself shying away from publicity, and it all became an oddly personal and private little victory.

Forthwith, I chucked an old tarpaulin over it, and did not peer under it for a further three years. I was utterly sick of cyclerickshaws, having realised the futility of this little exploit. There was no denying it had been both enormous fun and a vicious struggle to complete, but lurking behind all of that, I felt a pathos, where, in the end, the whole affair left me feeling a little shallow, although I dined out on it endlessly, and still do.

Sometime later — with support from friends and family and a creeping need for some sort of recognition — I wrote down this tale. But at the moment of receiving interest in the manuscript, I declined to pursue the possibility of publishing. It was my first attempt at writing and as Benevuto Cellini stated, “ A man should not attempt autobiography before he is forty five years old.” That manuscript has now languished for twelve years, and hopefully some useful composting has taken place. I am now fifty, and the book is published next year.

*

In amongst the residues of this little adventure, remained a gnawing search to make sense of it all. After living and working in Bombay in the late eighties, I began to look into the possibilities of doing something to help India’s 1,000,000 cyclerickshawallahs. I began investigating micro-credit schemes with the idea of forming cell cooperatives so that they might be able to purchase these little engines for their cyclerickshaws. Sanjay Gandhi’s initial scheme had failed for a number of sordid reasons, but none to do with the design of the technology, which had shown itself to be extremely sound and robust. Thus, although I knew the product was suitable, it took more time to realise that, whichever way I looked at it, the client was tricky. There are intrinsic problems in lending money to cyclerickshawallahs so that they are in a position to purchase an auxiliary form of power, where often a daughter’s dowry might, understandably, be more important. In the end a sort of common sense prevailed, where I recognised that, at best, in a lifetime, I would but melt the tip off this iniquitous iceberg, and at worst would become mired in unresolvable details. The only way forward I could really envisage was to gift these engines, but that required massive investment and funding.

For all of that, I still sought a way that I could help. I had come into close contact with these people — I must have met thousands of them in India on that trip, and each time was a pleasure and a celebration. It might be conceited to suggest it, but in truth I vicariously was living out some of their dreams — I was both tethered to the same machinery, yet foot-loose and happy. But when all was said and done, the ‘time of my life’ had been enjoyed on the burden of their misery. I could not see a way to ease or assuage the sense that my pleasure and small notoriety had been achieved on the back of one of the poorest sectors on the planet. I don’t suggest that this was a guilt, but my close contact somehow made me feel implicated — if I were Buddhist or Hindu, which I am not, one might call this my dharma.

*


Event Horizon —


“ Cyclerickshawallah Day ”

— 27th January, 2007 —

— A Day of recognition and solidarity for the 1,000,000 Cyclerickshawallahs of India —

Slowly the plan has emerged. I am currently, in stages, riding the same cyclerickshaw back to Madras (now known as Chennai) and around the world. In India, the media machinery had found the initial story irresistible, with coverage in the national dailies, and magazines. I have come to realise that, after completing the circumnavigation, attention will again be drawn to this little cyclerickshaw. I intend to use this focus — along with a swell of Indian politicians, who, like MGR, cannot resist lending support to initiatives that help poor sectors in India — as a springboard to inaugurate ‘Cyclerickshawallah Day’, allying it to Republic Day (26th January), or more precisely, the day after since it should be on a working day and stand in its own right.

On this day and annually thereafter, the people of India will be pledged to acknowledge the cyclerickshawallahs that carry their goods and chattels around the city, that take their kids to school, that yield to their every beck and call, that oil the machinery of their busy lives. On this one day of the year the cyclerickshawallahs of India will hold out their hand a little longer to their regular or occasional customers, for an acknowledging tip, a little ‘baksheesh’, because this is their one day of the year. This notion will broadly succeed because cyclerickshawallahs are close enough to the poverty line to press the issue, and I will ensure its continuing resurgence in the Indian media. That apart, Indians all secretly know the relentless hardships of cyclerickshawallahs’ lives, and would suffer loss of dignity to deny such an acknowledgement. As such, this small gesture falls firmly inside the grammar of sentiments of the pan Indian culture, although, of course, there will always be a cheap brand of Indians who will avoid using cyclerickshaws on that day. Money matters aside, this day of recognition gives Cyclerickshawallahs a much needed sense of themselves, where often even their existence seems to be denied. If one million rickshawallahs manage to receive one US dollar more on ‘Cyclerickshawallah Day’, then this is $1,000,000 moving in the right direction with zero administrative cost.

For all of these good intentions, a bit of baksheesh and a reluctant, acknowledging smile falls a long way short of actually lifting cyclerickshawallahs’ lives above the poverty line, or easing their debilitating workload. The intractability of poverty in India is hard to come to terms with, for it has a resilience that I feel un-empowered to compete against head-on, nor should a foreigner presume to become involved at such a level, Mother Theresa being a possible exception. All I can earnestly hope to bring to the table is to offer the cyclerickshawallahs of India a sense of unity and inclusion within the fabric of the modern world, from which they are mostly excluded. Without a champion and in the harshness of the Indian economic climate, they have been heeled down into the medieval time warp that co-exists along side India’s 21st century counterpart. I am going to shift that, even if just by a small amount. It has been this determination that has ameliorated the memories of my last efforts and got me back in the saddle — along with the realisation that, although I may not achieve a sea change, I am in a position to do some small thing of net value.

*

Four years ago, I acquired all the spare parts and a year later the original cyclerickshaw was brought back to life. To a resounding cheer, my wife and I coaxed the little beast off the pavement in front of Big Ben, where fourteen years earlier it had finished its last journey. We set off northwards.

Three weeks later, after a grand meander of visiting friends, (at one point causing a magnificent but blameless seven mile tail-back outside of Huddersfield on a Friday night) we reached Edinburgh where the festival intervened and commandeered the rickshaw as a stage prop and support vehicle, after which we had to return to work. Subsequently, it sat in a commercial storage space, holding its own between a power boat, and an antique Jaguar.

In the summer of 2002 I resumed the journey, heading further north to Aberdeen and then on to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, where “mush mush”, huskies will became involved. Things did not go well on the first attempt to cross the Greenland Icecap and We turned back leaving the rickshaw on the icecap. The following spring, We attempted to re-locate it but there was no trace. Later that year with metal detectors and a glaciologist, we made a second foray up there but without result. At this point I officially declared it lost. This summer I am off to Madras to get a replacement rickshaw and have it shipped to Greenland. After much heart ache, I realize I cannot stop now!

*

In this little exploit, I have enjoyed the freedom to make up my own rules and not be answerable to the constraints imposed by sponsorship. One of the few self imposed rules is that sea journeys are permitted but only at a minimum, hence the northern route, and that the rickshaw should never cheat by being carried on the back of another land vehicle, hence the use of dogs and addition of skis. Although a struggle is inevitably involved, at the heart of this initiative is the idea that it should be playful — it should be interesting and should be enervating in its originality. Cyclerickshawallahs will not thank me for unhappily wearing their vest of hair — they want something a little larger than life.

People express a certain disbelief (such as, “you’re mad.”) when I suggest we are taking a cyclerickshaw onto the snow and ice. But once they come to understand that I drove this machine across the Nubian desert, where the tarmac petered out into sand 28 kms North of Khartoum, and then further elaborate that 250 kms of that 900 kilometre desert crossing were covered on the Nile, when — with the help of an accomplice and eight oil drums arranged with a Mississippi style paddle — we transformed it into the one and only Nilotic Cyclerickshaw which successfully skittered through the white water of the 5th Cataract — or that it was towed 30 kms through 15 hairpin bends up to Ootacamund at 2,500 metres behind a fuel truck and traversed the Western Ghats three times … or that it managed to cover 300kms in one day … the doubters are usually less eloquent, but nonetheless confirmed in their original suspicions.

For my part, this journey follows the very simple and pragmatic ethos of, “if it is not over the top, then it’s not worth doing.” — and that in turn follows Eliot’s notion that the unknown paths are the only ones worth pursuing. I never would be holding out this begging bowl if I had not followed that ethos.

Whichever way, once the rickshaw drives back up onto the tarmac in North American, I am changing to electric motive power as this is the future of global urban transport, and the future of cyclerickshaws in India, and elsewhere. Such electric conversions[1] are inexpensive, easy, effective, and fully sustainable in both co2 emissions and noise pollution levels. Each electric conversion kit costs less than $100 including two batteries, charger, 1 kw motor, mounting bracket, belt and controller etc.

I am canvassing for the free or sponsored distribution of this technology in India, and everywhere else. Anyone who is familiar with India will know that one of the major sources of urban pollution is the dreaded autorickshaw. Despite attempts to regulate them in Delhi, these vehicles have very little to commend them, as they are not only highly polluting both in emissions and sound, but also dangerous and uncomfortable, while cyclerickshaws have always been an integrated feature of Indian urban life that adds colour and flavour. By deploying kits to electrify cyclerickshaws, market forces will reduce the number of autorickshaws[2] and consequently improve the general tone of Indian urban life. It will again become a pleasure to walk down a busy Indian street. Once the impetus towards electric motive power becomes familiar, perhaps autorickshaws will also be converted, such as is happening in Katmandu where such a pilot scheme has been successful.

*

The issues of global warming, and more precisely the burning of fossil fuels within urban confines, are finally becoming transparent. No-one can hide from the fact that the attempt to raise the quality of life through the incendiary of fossil fuels is now wholly undermined by the negative effects of the residue of that combustion directly on those life qualities this attempt seeks to enhance. In simple terms, the use of fossil fuel technologies has grown into a pervading cultural and global psychosis.

The remedy is now no longer one of hippie dippy impracticability, since the alternative technologies and energy sources have evolved and emerged to be economical viabilities and are now well understood and proven. The vital emphasis now is how quickly the political machinery can be goaded into a coherent response to this awareness. It’s now time to uproot these imperatives from the cosy nursery of Green idealism, and thrust them into main stream political agendas, such as has begun to happen with wind power, where it has finally been realized that the essential difference between 40 off-shore wind generators producing 60 Megawatts and a 60 Megawatt nuclear power station is that the former is cheaper to install, cheaper to run, and fails entirely safely. The visual aspect of wind mills is not a matter of ethos – it’s a matter of taste.

This awareness cannot transpire too soon, if history is not to brand us as utterly bird-brained. The science of the global warming phenomenon is no longer questionable. Where reputable science journals such as ‘Nature’ or ‘New Scientist’ in the seventies, eighties and nineties used to cast aspersions on such research results, they now support them whole heartedly, even in their editorial. Despite the defensive spin originating from the oil industry, the causes behind this phenomenum are now well proven and documented. It’s us; we are doing it.

At present, however, global warming is still presented as an abstract entity, as though this were a story happening to another planet, and not the one we currently inhabit. If ever there was a time when disastrous consequences loomed, while international politicality floundered in stasis and self absorbed delusion, then this is that time. I for one am not standing by to watch a bunch of self interested individuals turn our world into planet toilet.

With the possible exception of Iceland, which has a mandate for converting to hydrogen motive power by 2010, no government has a coherent policy in light of this knowledge. The more I considers this, the greater my determination grows to confront current energy policy makers. It has become clear to me that real political initiative no longer takes place within accepted political frameworks, democratic or otherwise. The drawing of attention to issues is now best achieved by independent media exposure.

Hence, taking a cyclerickshaw around the world is a media platform to embrace and high-light both the plight of Indian Cyclerickshawallahs, and the paramouncy of this global imperative to find practical solutions that truly reduce fossil fuel burning, and methane & co2 production . These two initiatives converge on this living, moving demonstration of how little energy is actually required for safe, comfortable and convenient urban transport when human power is included at critical moments, and how effective these micro-powered vehicles are. Incidentally, man powered rickshaws or cyclerickshaws have been appearing in a few western cities, and their numbers are growing, but without an auxilary power supply they cannot successfully compete with existing taxis or cars. The addition, however, of a micro-power plant and a design to ensure weather proofing would quickly transforms them into truly viable urban transport for the 21st century.

*

Pursuing this thought, I have been designing electric taxis/rickshaw variants for the last three years, and more specifically a version for London, based on a Hansom Cab. I am currently are working on designs for Rome, Paris, New York and Medina. The key is to this profligration of electric urban microtaxis is vernacular - if they are to be successfully adopted, they must be perceived as already familiar objects.

I am a committed believer that public transport cannot wholly usurp dedicated forms of transport in the urban environment, and therefore the banning of cars in city centres must be counterbalanced with a greater availability of inexpensive taxis, as one finds so conveniently in Asia. Powered by electricity, such an introduction is not only a practical environmental solution, but also an employment generator. Technologies such as satellite navigation aids, wireless payment transactions and wireless information providing, greatly facilitate the operation of such a service. I cannot emphasise too strongly that this is both a vision and an entirely practical solution for implementing a coherent and sustainable approach to our 21st century urban environment.

The purists who support the regime of ‘cycling and public transport’ as a solution to our urban transport problems, fail to embrace our needs and desires for private space and dedicated flexibility. The weakness of their ideas is clearly demonstrated by the almost limitless capacity of private car owners to absorb taxes and disincentives. The Asian urban model, on the other hand, shows that the critical level of convenience — ie that which is necessary to retain fluidity in the urban environment — can be achieved with a major reduction in the use of private vehicles, if comfortable cheap taxi transport becomes easily available. It sounds obvious and simple — that’s because it is.

To sum up, the Indoopush Initiative is to raise awareness of such 21st century issues, but more importantly, to instigate an annual boon for Indian Cyclerickshawallahs and a way forward to improve their lives, and my priority will always remain as such.

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[1] Photovoltaics are not considered part of this equation at present, as they are still prohibitively expensive and impracticable on many fronts.

[2] Although autorickshaws can travel a little further and a little faster than cyclerickshaws with engines attached, the latter is nonetheless almost equivalent in general performance.

Dancing skeletons

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