Wednesday, October 3, 2007

3.CAMPAIGN: Neither do they emit fumes nor ignite road rage

When improved cycle rickshaw, with speed gears and ergonomic design (see picture), was launched in Agra in 1997, the future of poor man's public transport had started looking up. Ten years later, the status of rickshaw is that of abject ridicule as many cities have banned the movement of this environment-friendly pedal-powered convenience from municipal limits. While the historic Chandi Chowk in Delhi had banned the ubiquitous rickshaw following high court orders (a petition challenging the court's orders is in India's Supreme Court) five years ago, the adjoining satellite township of Noida has recently curtailed its movement from busy sections of this fast developing city. Many cities in Asia, like Dhaka and Jakarta, too are forcing rickshaws off the streets.

Unlike in these countries where rickshaws are symbols of poverty, they are seen as symbols of the future in the developed nations - an environment friendly means of transport. And, they could be cheaper and less polluting public transport in congested areas of big cities in the developing world if municipalities would stop treating them as a nuisance. The number of cars in cities is not restricted but cycle rickshaws are. In contrast, on New York's fifth avenue people could be seen looking around for cycle rickshaws in the evenings. Elsewhere in North America and Europe, cycle rickshaws are finding favor with the commuters.

The India Cycle Rickshaw Improvement Project, undertaken by the New York-based Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) , was borne out of the realisation that improving the design efficiency of human-powered public transport could be a win-win situation. From improving city environment to providing gainful employment, rickshaw could be a cheaper mode of public transport. The ITDP designers had deployed tubular body to reduce rickshaw's weight by 30 per cent ; designed multi-gear system for easy pulling; and had created low height passenger friendly seating features. All this, within the cost of a traditional rickshaw - an estimated US $ 150 only.

Though several rickshaws plying across cities do resemble the improved version, the clones do not carry the essential elements of the design. Says designer Shreya Gadepalli, who had worked on the project, "... as the principal designer it does pain me to see that not all vehicles are as light, safe or comfortable as they could have been; features like multiple gears, which were seen as an extra cost, were done away with." With support from the USAID, the India Project had contributed to improving no less than 300,000 rickshaws in as many as 100 cities. However, the spread of the revolutionary design has ceased since the project came to a close in 2003.

Thanks to an indifferent policy environment and an irresolute rickshaw industry, the innovation aimed at benefiting as many as 4-5 million cycle rickshaws in India has literally been squandered. As developing countries go through economic boom, the nature and growth of road network does not take rickshaws into account. With elevated corridors being one convenient way of avoiding traffic congestion in the cities, the rickshaws gets excluded as a result. Against the powerful automobile industry, the unorganized human powered vehicle industry stands little chance to impact change.

Much ado about climate change and yet this non-polluting mode of transport gets a raw deal! The modernization of cycle rickshaw in India has already proven to be a more cost effective way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions alongside securing better livelihoods for millions, at no extra burden to the state. The launch of improved rickshaw in Agra was aimed at reducing harmful emissions from polluting auto rickshaws and cars from the periphery of the one of world's seven wonders. However, in the absence of political patronage the inherent potential of cycle rickshaws in generating elusive carbon credits for the resource-crunched municipalities is being missed.

Earning carbon credits may not be far-fetched but the fact that rickshaws generate gainful employment for millions should be reason enough for developing countries to be empathetic towards it. The results of the revolutionary design changes had led to an appreciable increase in income for traditional rickshaw, from a low of Rs 75-80 to Rs 110-120 per day. After deducting the rental costs, the previous earnings were only marginal higher. Interestingly, the new design gave the poor rickshaw drivers a chance to earn more by spending less energy. However, for manufacturers and contractors the enhanced income to poor rickshaw drivers has been of little consequence.

Without doubt, there is space and scope for integrating cycle rickshaw into the urban transport plan. Banning rickshaws on the pretext of congestion on city streets is irrational, cars and auto rickshaws owe much more to it. Cycle rickshaws hold distinct advantage over motorised transport: these are non-polluting and non-violent form of public transport. Neither do these emit fumes nor ignite road rage! Unless public policy allows cycle rickshaws to negotiate their position, an opportunity to impact change in the city environment in light of ensuing climate change will be missed.

(this blog has been published under the title `Eco-friendly vehicles crushed under motor wheels' in the Bangalore-based multi-edition daily Deccan Herald)

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