Every day, Chinnathambi is at Chennai central railway station by 7.30am. The 60-year-old waits patiently near his yellow cycle rickshaw, waiting for passengers. If he is lucky, he may get three or four customers in a day. By 5pm, he usually gives up and makes his way back home.
“I have been working for the past 45 years. Earlier, I used to make 300 a day but now I barely make 100,” he says. “People don’t hire us anymore as they prefer to take buses and autos.”
Chinnathambi is one of the last few cycle rickshaw pullers in the city. “There used to be around 6,500 cycle rickshaws a few years ago but now there are only 3,000,” says an official at the Hackney carriage centre at Vepery police station, where the rickshaws have to register.
Most of the remaining vehicles can be found outside the Central railway station, on the streets of Sowcarpet and a few other pockets in north Chennai.
“It is difficult for us to cycle on flyovers with passengers. Since there are so many flyovers in the city, we are unable to carry passengers for longer distances,” says Mekalathan, another rickshaw-puller. The aged men struggle to eke a living and often live hand-to-mouth. Since they get few customers, many of them carry goods to the shops that line the narrow streets of Sowcarpet. “North Indians usually prefer travelling in our rickshaws. Our regular customers are elderly people andwomen who find it difficult to walk from street to street while shopping in Sowcarpet. We also get to drop people from the station to the nearby hotels,” says Dhanapal, who usually waits outside the central station.
Anitha Jayanth, a regularly passenger, says that she uses the rickshaw within Sowcarpet as it is easier. “I have to pay only 30 for these rickshaws while autos charge a minimum of 50 even for the shortest distance,” she says.
However, few people prefer this mode of transport in other parts of the city. Many people feel cycle rickshaws should be banned as it is an inhumane practice as the drivers are often aged men. Several cities in India have also called for a ban on these vehicles as they are slow and often cause traffic congestion.
However, other people feel that cycle rickshaws should be encouraged as they are eco-friendly and consume no fuel.