DELHI –- With air pollution in India found to be the worst in the world, and government attempts to arrest the problem of vehicular congestion falling short, concerned civilians are now making efforts to promote clean modes of transportation.
Navdeep Asija, an entrepreneur and social activist, is attempting to revive the cycle rickshaw as a trendy and green way to travel while generating employment for the urban poor and keeping cars off the road for short distances.
In 2008, he launched the world's first dial-a-cab service called Ecocabs in a small town of 100,000 people called Fazilka in Punjab, on the border of India and Pakistan.
In the face of environmental and health challenges, Asija popularized the three-wheeled ride by making rickshaw pullers more accessible to customers through mobile phone, a website and an Android app. The linking with technology gave the old-fashioned rickshaw a trendy image as well.
“It is about mixing a traditional transport with modern technology for digital empowerment,” said Asija. “It is about generating eco-friendly employment for those with minimum level of skill.”
In April 2010, the governments of Punjab and Haryana adopted the Ecocab model, which has now been replicated in 23 cities in both states. Other state governments in India are also exploring the option. In December 2011, Fazilka Ecocabs was awarded the National Award of Excellence in the area of Non-Motor Transport. And now Asija is planning to bring the rickshaw service to Delhi by the end of the year.
With cars and buses flooding Indian roads during the past two decade, the rickshaw was pushed back into the narrow back lanes of big cities. This year, for instance, the West Bengal government banned non-motorized vehicles, leading to protests from environmentalists. In 2007, the Delhi government also limited the number of rickshaw pullers in Delhi to 99,000 to make space for cars. But India’s Supreme Court in 2012 lifted the cap. It is estimated that India currently has 10 million rickshaw pullers and 600,000 of them are in Delhi.
At the same time, it is estimated India has 100 million vehicles on the road, and is expected to hit 450 million by 2020. Even the Delhi metro, launched in 2006 to reduce dependence on vehicles, hasn’t stopped the city's economically mobile residents from buying cars. Delhi alone had more than 7.4 million vehicles in 2012 and it adds 1,200 more every day. Air pollution is now the fifth leading cause of death in India.
“Of course, the problem is very big but we have to start somewhere,” said Asija, who hopes to see this Ecocab service in all Indian cities. “Today, people will take out their car even to reach the market five minutes away. This can be changed if the rickshaw puller can come quickly to your doorstep.”
Residents using the service in Fazilika can phone seven tea shops serving as call centers or the rickshaw puller directly. Since the majority of its clients are women and the elderly, Ecocabs gets their rickshaw pullers verified by the police to enhance security.
A similar setup has been planned for Delhi starting with three upscale neighborhoods. Instead of teashops, however, the watchman will double up as a call center to process requests.
Rickshaw pullers in India earn an average salary of somewhere between 269 rupees and 179 rupees ($4.24 to $2.82) a day. The majority of them don’t own a rickshaw but rent for 30 to 50 rupees a day.
The income for the 400 rickshaw pullers working for the Ecocabs service, Ajisa estimated, can be 25 percent more than what they were making before. This is possible especially for those rickshaw pullers who build a strong customer base by being punctual and having pleasant manners. “Like any service, hard work is rewarded,” he said.
And now fancy rickshaws equipped with FM radio, a water bottle and a newspaper stand are entering the market. These “glamorized” rickshaws, Asija said, can even earn about 600 rupees a day. For the most part, Ecocabs has been using rickshaws and mobile phones already owned by the cyclists. But it also involves buying new rickshaws for about 13,000 rupees ($205), which are funded by donations of professionals who form the Graduate Welfare Association of Fazilka. These rickshaw pullers are expected to pay back the costs of the rickshaw over time, which works out to about 20 rupees a day -- less expensive than renting.
Madan Kranti, a 42-year-old rickshaw puller, added that these new contraptions were at least 35 kilograms lighter and easier to ride, even though they accommodate four people instead of two. And more passengers means more income. “People really like the new look and they take the rickshaw often,” he said.
Kranti, who has been a rickshaw puller for 12 years, said his income has gone up from 3,000 rupees ($47) a month to 6,000 rupees ($95) since he joined Ecocab service in July. "I like it a lot. I already have three or four regular people and it's a good relationship," he said. "They tend to give 10 or 20 bucks extra even for short distances.”
Shiv Kumar Mandal, another Ecocabs employee in Chandigarh, said that the new design of rickshaws had become a craze. "One day, there were four or five people fighting to get a ride. I was able to charge 40 rupees (63 cents) instead of 20 or 30," he said. "On such days, I can make almost 500 rupees ($7)."
One of his regular clients, Ashok Kumar, a ward attendant at a local hospital, said that connecting with Mandal over the phone was really convenient. "Sometimes my shift finishes really late in the night but he always comes when I call. It's the best part of this whole service," he said.
In bigger cities like Delhi and Chandigarh, Ecocabs also earns revenue by using the rickshaw for advertising, fetching about 1,000 rupees a month. In a commercial operation, a percentage of the revenue is given to the rickshaw pullers in cash. Ecocabs, however, uses the money to pay for their insurance and provide free medical aid up to the cost of 30,000 rupees as well as investing in a government pension scheme.
And with Asija planning to bring Ecocabs to service prominent residential areas, rickshaws seem poised to leave the confines of Delhi's back lanes. “Our larger goal is not just to provide employment but to bring dignity back into this occupation and the whole community,” he said.