Bringing dignity to Rickshaw Drivers

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Meet team SMV! 1. Naveen

In the coming weeks, team SMV will share about their experiences with the rickshaw-driving community and why they choose work with the company. First in the series, we will hear from Founder and Managing Director Naveen Krishna who will tell about one of the incidents that compelled him to work in the rickshaw industry.

In 2005 I was pursuing my MSW from Banaras Hindu University. On one particular night, I was sitting at my study table trying to finish some assignments given by our professor on personnel management.  My roommate (as always) was in the next room chatting with the other boys about hostel politics and affairs going on in our faculty. I felt like having some tea, so I put on my jacket and left the room. It was eight in the evening on the 27th of December, and I still remember how cold it was.

The tea shop was 500 meters away so I decided to walk instead of taking the motor bike that my father gave me. I started walking slowly towards the hostel gate and heard some noise on the road in front of the entrance. It was dark outside on the road, as the street light had gone bad few days back, so it was hard for me to guess what was happing there. Suddenly, I heard a painful sound, and as I rushed to the road I saw one of the boys from our hostel beating a rickshaw puller like an animal. 

Somehow I managed to stop him and rescue the rickshaw puller from the beating. When I inquired about what happened from my colleague, he said that the puller was asking for two Rupees more than what he pays on a regular basis. The smell of beer and pan masala from my hostel colleague’s mouth was unbearable for me so I decided to settle the dispute by taking the same rickshaw to have the tea. The rickshaw puller never spoke a word with me the whole time.

After reaching the tea stall, I invited the puller to have tea with me, and he silently agreed. I ordered tea for two and, when I turned back, I could see his face was bleeding and had swelled due to the beating. I was stunned by the barbaric act of my colleague and the vulnerable position of the poor rickshaw puller in our society. I gave him some water and told him to wash his face and started having the tea with him. His name was Ram-Naresh, and he must have been around 50 years of age. He started sharing his journey to become rickshaw puller in Varanasi.

He was a native of Mau, a district 75 km away, who came to the city 18 years back to find a job in the Varanasi silk industry. He somehow got a job and was happy with his family of 7 including his mother, wife, and four children. With the introduction of power looms he lost his job and never had a clue how to find a new job until the day he met a fellow from his own village who was pulling a rickshaw in town. The fellow introduced him to Khalif who was with a rickshaw mafia near the Ghats. After taking a security of Rs. 500, Khalif gave him an old rickshaw on daily rent of Rs. 25. For the last 12 years he had been driving the rickshaw to earn bread for his family.

 I was in grief when I heard that this kind of harassment happened to him frequently and that he was used to it. To quote his lines “Saheb, hum log garib admi hai, koi hamare baat ko nahi sunta, hum kya kar sakte hai” (Sir, we are poor people; no one listens to us, what we can do?) This incident forced me to think how unfair it is to be a rickshaw driver: this guy who received the beating for just two rupees—the same money which my colleague spent on his single pan masala—for plying the rickshaw in such cold. It was unwarranted to beat the rickshaw puller; it’s not a crime to ask for two extra Rupees to drive in the night…and he spends two to three Rupees on pan masala 10 times a day.

When I started working with rickshaw drivers, I recalled this incident. It’s one of the many illustrations of the need in this community. I felt that they should have dignity. At the time I did not realize that this incident will be the major cause for the genesis of SMV!

Naveen has more than six years experience working with rickshaw drivers in the nonprofit and forprofit social space. He headed The Rickshaw Bank project in the capacity of National Coordinator for Centre for Rural Development (CRD), a nonprofit enterprise based at Guwahati, Assam. He was recruited and trained under CAPART’s Young Professional Scheme and has developed expertise in economic development, organizational development, microfinance, and government policy. Naveen enjoys boat rides on the Ganga and cooking.