On the face of it, it seems to be a logical move. An internal survey by Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) is said to have found only 200,000 of the about 600,000 rickshaws plying the DSCC areas suitable for operation. Therefore, the remaining 400,000 will be evicted in stages from March 15, 2021. They added that this will be better for the traffic situation. The question they did not seem to address however is on a more general level—will this move be better for the nation?
While the idea of a congestion-free Dhaka is something all Dhaka dwellers dream of, the DSCC's decision to phase out 400,000 rickshaws poses some serious questions. While studies tend to show rickshaws do indeed contribute to some of the lowest average vehicular speeds around the world, they are only one part of the problem.
On a purely mundane, logistical level, this decision will pose some challenges. The pavements and walkways of Dhaka city, when they are there, are notoriously unwalkable. They are mostly occupied by street vendors and are invariably litter-ridden. Then there are the motorcycle and bicycle riders who often resort to driving on the pavements to evade the traffic on the streets. And even amidst all these if one tries to walk, they are subjected to the random—and perhaps sometimes intentional—shoves and bumps, especially the women and girls.
Moreover, some of the streets and alleys of Old Dhaka, all of which fall under DSCC's purview, are so narrow that often private cars cannot move through them. Under such circumstances, people have no other option but to resort to using rickshaws to commute from one place to another. While the young and the capable can always choose to walk, even on dirty walkways, jostling through the footpath vendors, what the elderly and the psychically challenged would do in the absence of rickshaws is something the DSCC authorities need to clarify.
But on a more holistic level, the major issue that needs to be looked into by the authorities seeking to phase out 400,00 rickshaws is their economic rehabilitation. One must keep in mind that the rickshaw industry is a big one. There are multiple forward and backward supply chain stages that are linked with it: there are the parts suppliers of rickshaws, the makers, the painters, the rickshaw owners, the rickshaw pullers, the mechanics and the spare parts suppliers, among others, in this long chain. The phasing out of these rickshaws from DSCC would not only affect the lives and livelihoods of the 400,000 pullers, but also all those involved with the associated industries.
But more importantly, most of the rickshaw pullers are the main bread-earners of their families. When the DSCC talks about phasing out 400,000 of them from March 15, they must also consider its economic implication on the hundreds and thousands of people who are dependent on those rickshaw pullers.
There seems to be no plan on how the rickshaw pullers, their families and the others whose livelihoods will be affected by the eviction of the 400,000 rickshaws will be rehabilitated. Are they going to be provided with alternative livelihood generation opportunities? Are they going to be sent back to their ancestral villages? If they do return, what are they going to do once back home? There are no answers to these questions. If the DSCC have these answers, then they must disclose these to the public and to those who are living amidst fears of a bleak future.
A survey of 1,200 households of rickshaw pullers conducted last year by Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), in collaboration with Unicef, revealed that 31.81 percent of those surveyed have travelled to Dhaka from environmentally vulnerable areas in search of a better life. The people who toil day and night to earn a meagre living do not do it for pleasure; they do it out of desperation, to survive in a world where the prices of essentials are on the rise, and where access to education and decent, formal workplaces remain limited to a few.
These people brave the rains and storms, the scorching heat of summer and the bitter cold of the winter, peddling through the dirty waters when the roads are clogged, for a mere few Takas. And despite the backbreaking effort, they still peddle rickshaws because they have been left with no other option. They do not have access to finance or technical education, and they have no other means of earning a living except their Sisyphean jobs. Yet, every time the policymakers talk about easing the traffic situation of Dhaka, the first segment they point to are the rickshaw pullers. Talk about soft targets!
Instead of taking these whimsical—and at best piece-meal—measures to ease Dhaka's road congestion, the policymakers must look at the broader socioeconomic picture that is enabling this problem. Dhaka's traffic nightmare is not a black and white issue. If anything, it is a complex maze where multiple factors are working together to exacerbate it. Rickshaws are certainly a part of it, but evicting them is not going to solve this problem.
If the policymakers really want to address this menace, they need to thoroughly assess all the factors that are contributing to it and take multi-pronged, comprehensive measures to ease the roads of the city, and this strategy should also include the bigger tasks. Decentralisation of the capital, controlling internal migration and creating income opportunities in rural areas will be some of the major components of this strategy.
By removing 400,000 rickshaws from the roads of DSCC areas, the officials will be putting into uncertainty the livelihoods of 400,000 households. The DSCC officials should revisit this shortsighted move and come up with a better and detailed strategy to solve the problem of Dhaka's traffic, one that includes the rehabilitation of rickshaw pullers.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem.