Day 1: Come Along!

India's Rickshaws

Did you know...?

The Indian city of Kolkata (Calcutta) is the last place on earth where hand-pulled rickshaws are still commonly used.

  • Hand-pulled rickshaws are used mainly for short trips - women going to the market; businesses making deliveries; even children going to school.
  • Rickshaws are especially useful during the monsoon season, when torrential rains turn the roads into rivers. Often rickshaws are the only way to get through on flooded streets where motorized vehicles are unable to pass.

It is hard to know exactly how many of these human-powered rickshaws are in Kolkata, since rickshaw pulling is technically illegal - no licenses have been given in India since 1945. Some estimate as many as 20,000 are still in use.

However, thousands of poor laborers (mostly immigrants from the impoverished neighboring state of Bihar) rely on the income from pulling rickshaws and the tradition continues.

Most people in India don't own a car. Rickshaws give families an inexpensive way to get around. It costs about 20 rupees (50 cents) to take a short ride to the market, doctor's office, or the local bazaar.

In India, there are three main kinds of rickshaws:

  • Auto rickshaws are used everywhere in India, especially in large cities. These are small motorized three-wheelers. You will often see an entire family crammed into this small vehicle! Indians call these "tuk tuks" because of the sound their engines make. There are an estimated 55,000 registered auto rickshaws just in the capital city of New Delhi.
  • Bicycle rickshaws are also seen in smaller cities and towns, and even villages. They are sometimes ornately decorated.
  • Hand-pulled rickshaws are outlawed in India, but are still used in some areas. A person (usually barefoot) runs in front holding a metal bar while pulling the rickshaw passengers to their destination.

Rickshaws were first seen in Japan in the 1860s and were introduced in India in the 1880s. At first they were used mainly to transport goods, but in the 1900s India's rickshaws became a popular way for people to travel.

What other ways do people get around in India? Bicycles, small motorcycles, and buses are common. In large cities, people also use local trains to go from one neighborhood to another.

  • What would your life be like if your family didn't have a car? How would it make things easier? Harder?

Explore on your own:

  • NationalGeographic.com: Kolkata's Rickshaws. Features a 2008 article on rickshaws in Kolkata, a photo slideshow, and a short video.
  • City of Joy by Dominique LaPierre. A searing look at life for a rickshaw puller in a Calcutta slum: the struggle for survival, the violence, and the social and cultural practices. (Recommended for older readers)

Activity: To imitate the rickshaw, have an adult drive your kids around in a wheelbarrow for a few minutes and then have them try to be the driver. Then discuss the difficulty level of this job and what life must be like for rickshaw drivers in India.