Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Citizen CANE

I had the best start of the day today. When I was busy ‘picking-up’ a customer at the Metro Station, the thulla (I can barely call him Police constable) punctured my rickshaw's rear tire twice with his big needle (better known as Sooaan).

Of course my rickshaw was standing in “No Parking” (where else would it stand?) but does that give that ‘prick’ any right to prick my tires? Plus, I ensured that it wasn't standing in a place where it might cause a traffic-jam or inconvenience to people. Yet I was targeted. I wonder what he achieved out of all this childishness. If he thinks puncturing tyres will scare the sh*t out of rickshaw-walla’s and they will stop going to the Metro Station, then he is clearly day-dreaming.

I am not as much annoyed at the loss of money (in mending the punctures) but more at the loss of time – one and a half hour! You should know that the morning hours for a rickshaw-walla and the night-hours for a you-know-who are most critical from the earning point of view! ;)

When I asked an auto-walla if the cop punctures their tires with the needle if they happen to be in 'No Parking', he replied with an emphatic NO. "At max, he can make a 'no parking' challan. He can't touch the Auto nor he can misbehave with the driver," he added with conceit.

A rickshaw-walla is doing his job (or business so to speak, however menial it may be assumed) and he deserves to be treated as a respectable citizen with all his rights. If nothing else, he deserves to be treated as a Human Being. Then why are they beaten up with canes and their rickshaws wrecked and punctured? When would this high-handedness of the authorities end?

It's ironical that government pumps in billions of rupees in various employment guarantee schemes (viz MNREGA) yet it constantly sabotage the attempts of these self-respecting individuals who attempt to earn an honest living on their own!

In the past two weeks I have observed that Police, at its whims and fancies, keeps chasing away rickshaw-guys from some locations - Primarily Metro Station which is like the Reserve Bank of India for a rickshaw-walla!

Often they block the ‘Chatra marg’ – the arterial road connecting the campus with the Metro station – during the morning hours when time is money for a rickshaw-walla. Ok, even if I agree that they do so to regulate the traffic, the randomness of these decisions is what baffles me. Also, some ricks are permitted while some are not!

When I raised question on this partiality, they retorted with, “tu zyada vakeel ban raha hai?” (Are you trying to be a lawyer here?). They almost took the air out of the rear tyres, threatened to impound my rickshaw (which is illegal by the way) and warned me to use their lathi (cane) if I didn’t relent. I was arguing with them for equality as a citizen, realised that I was just a rickshaw-walla: a citizen cane!

In my childhood I enjoyed watching tom & Jerry. Least did I know how much fun it is to actually play this cat & mouse game. Sometimes the cat wears ‘khaki’ and sometimes white & blue.

A cop arrives on the scene out of the blue. Few rickshaw-wallas see the cop and raise an alarm. The herd starts fleeing. The cop runs after you with lathi in one hand and the needle in the other.You run as long as he keeps up with the pursuit. The moment he stops, you stop and the moment he turns back you also start moving back to take the original position.

What is going on here? This is a zero-sum game; a lose-lose scenario. It seems that the government and authorities have a habit of neglecting and negating the basic rights to the poor till the time they evntually revolt. I hate to compare but that’s exactly what has happened in the Naxal hit regions of the country.

I acknowledge that few rickshaw-wallas park haphazardly, go deep into the metro station, and hound a person in an attempt to lure him/her in his rickshaw. However, the same rickshaw-wallas are capable of working in a highly disciplined manner. You can see that professionalism in front of colleges where they patiently wait for their turn in long serpentine lines.

I can almost take a personal guarantee here that if some clear, reasonable and mutually acceptable guidelines are laid down, the rickshaw-pullers will abide by it.

What is required here is better communication between the police and the rickshaw-wallas whose prerequisite is mutual respect. Till the time the police look down upon the rickshaw-pullers and consider them as nuisance and the rickshaw-pullers consider the police as a blood-sucking tyrant nothing positive can possibly be ever achieved.

(PS: According to a latest Supreme Court ruling in which it has upheld Delhi High Court’s verdict, there can’t be any cap on the number of rickshaws in the Capital. So it fairly and squarely puts an end to the license or permit requirement and makes it perfectly legal to pull a rickshaw for a living.

Also, legality and reality are often two different entities. Legally speaking, 50% of the Delhi is living on illegal land (according to an article in The Hindu). But the reality is, only last month, Delhi Government regularized 917 unauthorized colonies!

Above all, a rickshaw is a necessity in a city life rather than a menace. It’s not for nothing that Delhi has around 5 Lakh rickshaws even when the upper limit set by the government was just 90,000!)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Sleeping in the Spotlight on a Garbagebin

As I have mentioned in the previous post that most of my friends don't live in a rented room, they sleep at the Garage. Such is its location that it can accommodate many. The road on which it is situated is partially closed at one end, hence limited traffic and noice in the night. Across the road is a river-sized drain (separated by a wall). Adjacent to it is an abandoned MCD Garbage-house followed by a temple. Very strategic and enviable location indeed!

While a few sleep under the shed of the garage, a majority of them sleep in the temple while some other sleep on the garbagebin.

When the question - “where can I sleep” finally sprung up, Ajay volunteered to be my host. Least did I know that he would take the “host” thing so seriously. He forewent his prized possesion for my comfort. Such hospitality, to the extent of austerity, for a friend whom you know for barely 2-3 days is beyond my understanding.

The place which was waiting to be my bed was the roof of the MCD Garbagebin! There was a wornout foam mattress lying at the edge of the bin which he gave to me. He himself slept on a bed-sheet!

4-5 days back, that mattress got drenched in the heavy rains and it was still a bit soggy and had a faint stench. If a relative of mine would have made me sleep on that mattress, I would have cussed him endlessly but here, I felt so indebted to Ajay for his generosity because he offered me the best he had. Everyhting in this world is so relative.

The view in front of me was nothing short of breathtaking! It was Ganesh Chaturthi that day (20 Sep). The Banquet hall on the other side of the drain was all decked up, adorned with beautiful lights. The reflection of those lights was shimmering in the drain water. You get a similar view from the backside of the verandah of Taj Mahal with the river Yamuna (read Drain) flowing in front of you and the reflection of the stars shimmering in it.

Cool breeze was blowing so there was no apparent need of a fan but mosquitoes were aplenty. Despite the fact that I had applied Odomos (Ajay gave it to me) on my feet, hands and face; there was no respite from them.

At home, I sleep like a package with just my nose jutting out of it to breathe but here I was sleeping like a true digambari Jain: the sky was my blanket if not clothes!

After an hour of tossing and turning in the bed, I finally decided to borrow a sheet from my friends who were sleeping on the floor in the adjoining temple. When I went there, I came across my childishness in the most brutal manner.

There were alteast 10 people sleeping at one end of the temple and 5 on the other end; not a single person was covered. What to talk of a sheet, most of them were not even wering clothes (except for an under-wear). I was humbled at the sight.

Despite getting such a cushy mattress to sleep and a partial cover against the mosquitoes, my demands had no limits and here they were sound asleep on just a bedsheet – carefree and contented.

When you are humiliated, you want to hide in the darkest possible corner of the house but I realized, quite painfully, that I was under the spotlight. There was a street-light several meters away on the nearby road but so glaring was its light that it made me believe as if everybody is seeing me and probably mocking me as well.

To make the tattered mattress sleepable, Ajay had covered it with a bedsheet. I lifted it up and snuggled inside. Problem solved. 

When I got up in the middle of the night to drink water, I came across another hard reality of a rickshaw-walla’s life when I saw a colleague in the middle of an Orgasm. However, I can not allege that the other guy, who hide his friend’s modesty with his knee, played any direct role in the 'climax' of this late-night show.

You got a girlfriend/boyfriend; if not, a laptop loaded with ‘stuff’; an internet connection; your own room with all its privacy and if nothing else, at least a washroom! A homeless rickshaw-walla has none of these. But his ‘basic instincts’ and urges hardly care about these details and only few have control on them. I faked indifference, drank water and slept again.

Without the alarm, I was up at 6. Almost everyone was awake by then. The drain plays the life-line in the life of my friends. Just like river Ganga takes up all your sins so that you come out fresh to sin more, similarly, this drain takes everybody’s ‘dump’ every morning so that they return fresh to dump again the next day.

After the daily chores of the day and tea & matthi at a nearby stall, I, kallu and few other friends set off for Kamla Nagar, waiting in front of a girl’s PG. We were ready to kickstart a new working day as and when an ‘angel’ arrives.

The 'Night life'

After being a semi-rickshaw-walla for eight days I decided go the whole hog. It was time to be a rickshaw-walla in the night as well. May be it was time to go further beyond my new-found comfort zone.

Most of my rickshaw-friends don't live in a room; they sleep at the Garage under the sky. Although the room rent ranges from Rs 1.5-2 K in places like Chandrawal and Majnu ka Tila, it attracts many more expenditures like electricity, water, LPG/kerosene etc. These expenses eat up almost the entire savings despite the fact that one room is often shared by 6-8 people which often swells up to 10! (Do I need to give the dimentional specifications of the room?)

Usually I wrap up around 6:30 PM in order to reach home by 9:30 – 10 PM but My intentions were different today. So, at 6:30, I informed my Mom abt my plans of 'no-return'!

After waiting at Kamla Nagar for good 45 minutes in the hope of a ‘sawari’, which never came (becuse it was Bharat-Bandh that day which slashed the earnings by 70-80% of most rickshaw-wallas, mine went into negative!), I left for Chandrawal to dine at 8:15 PM. This rustic, cramped and haphazard urban-village is just 200m away from the ‘Golden Arches’ of globalization! You will find a distinctive squalor in the narrow streets – Cow dung! Because there is at least a cow/buffalo in front of almost every house. The houses, by the way, are all cemented and mostly 3-4 storied. To maneuver rickshaw in these streets is a different challenge altogether.

Every business has its niche clientele and so do the two ‘half-star’ nameless hotels in Chandrawal. Their prime customers are Rickshaw-wallas and Daily Wagers. But if you think that these hotels serve only ‘dal-roti’, than you are wrong. They have all the sought-after non-veg delicacies - Chicken curry, mutton curry, buff, fish fry, fish curry, egg curry, Bota kaleji, siri etc. Eatable, non-poisonous and affordable! Taste depends on how tired you are. As my mom told me to stay away from eggs since Dashlakhan (a Jain festival) was on, I abide by her diktat; I ordered Bota Kaleji (Liver) for Rs 25!

These hotels typically hire small boys of age 7 to 10 years as 'waiters'. The kid who served me must be 10 if not less. There are no prizes for guessing his name - chchotu. He Serves food to every one along with another boy and also caters to the special demands of his hard-working but impolite customers.

Mumbaikers raised a huge hue and cry over the crackdown of Mr Dhoble, alleging him of stealing their night-life. In the name of night-life, all a rickshaw-walla gets is 1-2 hours; such is the crackdown of fatigue. These couple of hours are typically spent in chatting (everyone), smoking (most of them) and drinking (a few). The amount earned at the end of the day, the kind of customers one came across, tales of extracting money from an extra-smart customer, stories of their home-town and their next venture are generally the topics of conversation but in no time the talks go haywire, loaded with expletives.

By the time we reached the garage at 9:30 PM, most of the people had already slept and after an hour of this fun & profanity fest, it was time for the remaining few to hit the sack as well.

continued... (sleeping in the Spotlight!)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Diesel’s price up, Rickshaw’s fare down

Two days back, My facebook status was – for the same distance for which I would have haggled with the rickshaw-walla to pay Rs 20 instead of 25; I now haggle with the custmer to pay Rs 30.

This update may tell you about my change of perspective after becoming a rickshaw-walla but honestly speaking, the latter part is just a wish. The current scenario doesn’t leave any scope to haggle with the customer, that too for a higher fare.

In the words of my colleage, Mr Yadav from Bihar, “Har cheez ka daam badh raha hai, bas ek rikshe ka daam kam hota ja raha hai” (Prices of every damn thing is going up but only the rikshaw fare is going down). There was a lot of frustration hidden in his simple words.

I have come to terms with majority of routes in the campus in the past 5-6 days and I also have a fair idea of the optimum fare of a particular destination. For example, from the Metro station to Hndu College, Rs 20 is the standard and it's Rs 30 for Kamla Nagar. Hans Raj college is the farthest from the station and it deserves not less than Rs 30. But Rs 35 is also not too much to ask for even for a single ‘sawari’.

But today, in front of my eyes, a colleague agreed to take 3 fully grown (1.5 times my size) guys to Hansraj college for, behold,....... Rs 30. I was stupefied. I was standing right there when he was trying to negotiate with them. It was a lost cause. He virtually had no bargaining power.

The English speaking, Nike wearing, Guitar playing guys were talking utter nonsense. “Autowalla will also charge us Rs 30 and it would be very comfortable for us to sit in an Auto, so if you don’t want to go then we…”
Pure BS. But my friend couldn’t say that in their face. He couldn’t tell them, “then you better take an Auto rockstars”. Beause apart from the distance and fare calculation, a lot of other calculaions were going in his mind. After earmarking Rs 40 for the daily rent, he had to earn almost equal amount for the dinner. Saving for the family is not even in the picture yet. The day hadn’t been good thus far for him and he couldn't have afforded to lose those 30 bucks.

“Jaise jaise rikshon ki jansankhya badhti ja rahi hai, kiraya kam hota ja raha hai” ( As the number of rickshaws are rising the fare is plummeting) elucidated Mr Yadav. And in the absense of any unity of rickshaw-wallas or in the economic terms ‘Cartel’, fares have fallen flat.

At Metro station, you spot a prospective customer, approach her, talk with her, negotiate the fare with her and the deal is almost closed at Rs 30 for Kamla Nagar. Of course she tries to reduce it by Rs 5 but one rebuttal is more than enough to convince her. Only if you get the chance to rebut. The moment she says "25", one out of the dozen vying for her will blab, "come with me for Rs 25" Game over.

Next day, she comes with her boyfriend and says 20 and she still finds another blabber. The downward spiral continues. Rs 20, which was an anomaly becomes the new standard!

With such abysmally low fares its hard to imagine how these people survive. I regularly come across people who barely earn Rs 100 till the lunch time. ( I find myself regularly in that category!) It's OK for me as I don't have the responsibility of paying the room rent, educating the children, saving for the family or sending a lions share of the income back home but they have! All my colleagues are migrants and majority of them are married.

However, they are hopeful. They say that Durga Puja is around the corner. Many rickshaw-wallas will go home at that time. They will return only after a couple of months. So winters is expected to be relatively better business-wise. I just hope that their hopes materialize.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Day 1: The day of exploitation ( continued...)

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If there were a game of Darts in which hitting anywhere on the board had points except the bull’s eye, I was hitting the bull’s eye! There were students all around me; there were rickshaws loaded with sawaris plying all aroung me and yet I wasn't able to woo a single person. This was insane. I felt as if getting a customer was tougher than picking up a girl!

Dejected, I headed towards the University’s Metro station like a guided missile. Despite being an atheist, I believe that the Metro Station is the ultimate Messiah. You trust in him, surrender yourself under his refuge and he will ressurect you. But it’s still not a cakewalk. The Metro station only helps those who help themselves!

It’s a very competetive world out there. At the prime time, i.e. 8:30AM till 11AM you can easily find more than hundred rickshaws parked outside the station. And unlike in front of colleges where the rickshaw-wallas patiently wait in a line for their turn, there is no such discipline there. It’s utter chaos and cut throat competition.

The scene at the metro station reminds me of the Great Salmon Migration which you might have seen on Discovery channel. Each year, Salmons migrate upstream to lay eggs. At some places, they have to jump out of the river to go further up and that’s where the Grizzly Bears catch them mid air. It all depends on the skill and the risk-taking abilities of the Bear how many he can grab in his jaws.

When the train arrives and the students come out of the station in droves (mostly girls, I don't know why), most of the rickshaw guys keep waiting for them outside the station gates but few go inside the station to ‘catch the fish mid-air’. It is these skilled Bears who get the maximum reward. But it’s risky too. You can become a victim of the ‘danda’ or a slap of the metro security guards. Its simple, More the risk, more the reward.

After waiting for more than 30 minutes, a suave guy with a trendy girl approached me. The guy said, “Hindu college” and I said, in a disbelief, “chaliye” (let’s go!). My colleagues who were returning to the station quipped, “aakir mil gayi sawari!” (finally you got a customer!)

I must tell you that it’s one thing to pedal an empty rickshaw, quite the other to lug it with 2 ‘healthy’ people. At times your thigh muscles give up and you have to rely on your weight and shoulder strenght to push the ‘adamant’ pedal down. Somehow, Hindu college arrived and that’s how I earned my first 20 Rupees. (I thought I deserved atleast Rs 50 for this ardous job!) It’s sad that I don’t know the names of my first customers but then how does it matter. What’s there in a name, said Shakespeare.

Once the jinx was broken, new sawaris were easy to come. At Gwyer hall canteen I had my brunch. (I had my breakfast at home already). Their usual rate for one bowl Chhole/rajma is Rs 15 but for Rickshaw-wallas they give 2 Paranthas and half bowl chole for Rs 20. However, I was denied this concession! I had a good food-chat with a D-school management student who asked me what I do. I was gagged. In my moments of weakness, I had to resort to something that I used to do 2 months back. I shouldn't have.

I noticed that beyond kamla Nagar, the carefree students or the shopppers with high disposable income suddenly vanish. All you come across is the working class who is as thrifty with his money as you are.

At ‘Barf khana’ came an old couple who asked me to go to a particular place for Rs 10. Other rickshawallas had refused to take anything below 20. I was in a dilemma. I wanted to help them but Rs 10 was too less a price. In a decision I am not really proud of, I declined them too.

Few days back, a hospital, took a 3 day old baby off the incubator when his father failed to pay the hospital bills. The baby died. Was my act somewhat similar to the act of that hospital? I don’t know. I guess, Philanthropy and business don't generally go hand in hand.

Anyways, I had come so far from the university that I was sure that I will take a sawari only in the direction of the campus. But when a middle aged man asked me if I would go to GB Road, I don’t know what made me to say YES! Probably I was spellbound by the name! For someone who is riding a rickshaw for the first time, it’s a hell of a ride. The roads are so narrow and the traffic is so heavy that you are bound to edge a car or a person next to you. I was fortunate enough to edge both and still get away with it! For a sum as meagre as Rs 25 (the man claimed that he gave me Rs 5 extra!) this ride was an utter torture!

From GB Road to Tis Hazari to Majnu ka Tila, everybody just tried (and succeeded) to fleece me. But it’s laughable and ironical that I am using such strong words for those people. I was no different from them just a day earlier, a fleecer! Probably it’s the effect of being on ‘the other side of the fence’.

Anyways, I somehow reached the garage by 7PM, paid the rent (Rs 45) to the owner, took a rickshaw to the metro station (after waiting for 30 min at the bus-stand) and ate a steamed sweet-corn. At the end of this lavish expenditure, I was left with NOTHING. Yes, whatever I earned slogging the entire day, I blew it up in 20 minutes. Rs 30 on water and Rs 20 on the rickshaw pinched the most. My very first ‘for-profit’ business venture turned out to be a ‘No-profit-no-loss’ enterprise the very first day!

When I was eating the corn cob outside the metro-station, a colleage, who still didn’t know me came to me and asked, “Sir Rickshaw?” while the one who knew me smiled, and so did I.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Day 1: The Day of Exploitation

With serious doubts still lingering in my mind, I left the house at 8 AM. All along the way I was contemplating if what I am about to do is right? Am I biting too much than I can probably chew?
But then I thought, every time you move out of your comfort zone, such a mental tussle is inevitable. Thankfully, I didn't take a u-turn. I parked my cycle at the Metro parking, took the Metro for Vishwavidyalaya (North Campus, Delhi University) to reach Raja Rickshaw Garage in Roop Nagar near Daulat Ram College.

Let me tell you that a rickshaw garage is a serious business, but we will come to it later (plus, I still have to know a lot more about it). After practicing the 'art' for 10-15 minutes and test riding a few rickshaws, I was assigned gaadi no. 70. yeh, thats what they call their rickshaws - gaadi! Respect!

I was now officially a rickshaw-walla, but there was a problem - I had no clue about the area. I did not know the routes and what fare to quote (I feared the under-quoting part more than over-quoting!). I sought help from a veterans and he suggested me that I rather be honest about my naivety. "Tell the customer that you will take him wherever he wants to if he knows the way and leave it to his honesty to give you appropriate fare" he advised. "8 out of 10 sawaris will be genuine and will give you right fare. However few may underpay you by Rs 5 or 10. But that shouldn't matter as you are new and after 4-5 days you will know everything," he added.

8 out of 10 wasn't bad at all. So I decided to be candid with my customers (as if I had any other choice!) and headed towards the campus. The nearest college was 'Daulat Ram' but when I reached there, I saw a mile-long queue in front of its gate. These girls colleges, I tell you, are notorious in this particular aspect. Go there at any time of the day and a train of rickshaws awaits you. I couldn't muster enough courage (and patience) to get into the line behind 20 rickshaws! So from Daulat Ram to Hindu to St. Stephens to Law faculty I was just wandering around like an incoming SMS when the phone is switched off !

Finally... Finally I got a sawari in front of Law Faculty for VC office. She was about to sit when I, very candidly, told her that she has to help me as I dont know the way. What she did? she, very dramatically, retracted her foot off my rickshaw saying that even she didn't know the way. She, my first customer, was swept off her feet and taken away by somebody else in front of my eyes and I couldn't do anything! what a pity!


Why I became a Rickshaw-walla

I have realised that,
The perspective generally doesn’t change from what you see, hear or read.
It changes dramatically - sometimes in a snap - when your skin feels, sweat and bleed. 

I have sat in a rickshaw a zillion times, but every time in the rear seat. This seat is very cozy. It has got a shade; good amount of leg space and in most cases a good cushion as well. When the sun is over your head in all its fury, nothing beats a rickshaw ride. 

But what it means to be a rickshaw walla? How does it feel to pull a rickshaw right from the morning till late in the evening?

I am a Cyclist and have cycled at times even 200 kms in a day pedalling 12-14 hours continuously (with refreshment & washroom breaks of course!) but these rides are done once in a blue moon, high on adrenaline. It’s just me and my bike and nobody else. It’s about freedom and pleasure. And it’s about binging too; afterall I have to take a lot of carbs and proteins and fluids to keep myself in good shape!

What’s the case with a rickshaw walla? How high on Adrinaline can he afford to be when he knows that pulling a rickshaw the entire day is not a one-off pleasure ride but his routine? It’s not about freedom; it’s more about being a slave to the circumstances. It’s not a pleasure ride for him; it’s drudgery. And forget binging, there are occasions when they have only enough money to either buy dinner or pay the rickshaw rent and you know what’s the priority!

However, whatever I have said above is just a scholarly talk, looks good in a research paper. Until and unless I be there, until and unless I sit on that saddle in front of that cozy seat on which I have hitherto sat, how can I possibly know what it is like to be a rickshaw walla? That’s why I have become a rickshaw-walla.

You realize what it means to be a rickshaw puller when you ass craves for mercy from that rickety broken saddle, when your knees and palms and lower-back pain incessantly, when your already bald head gets some crispy hot slaps from the furious sun (and it’s a suptember sun, mind you, not june!) and when you don’t urinate the entire day cuz there’s only enough water in your body to either sweat or pee and you don’t have enough money to buy that extra amount of water!

But honestly, I still havn't fully realized what it means to be a rickshaw-walla because at dusk when the real rickshaw-walla goes back to his shanty dwelling (if any) or on the footpath or bus-stand, i come back home while enjoying the AC of Delhi Metro so sleep on a comfy bed! I hope I'll muster enough courage to experience that as well few days down the line.

And lastly, the most prominent change of perspective - 
When you are on the back seat of the rickshaw, a hot girl looks like a prospective mate, someone you would like to approach but when you are on the saddle, a hot girl only looks like a prospective customer! The similarity however is - you would still like to approach her to say,....... “Madam Rickshaw?”