Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pedalling their way to new identity-Deccan Herald

Gautam Dheer in Chandigarh, 13th November 2011

He may not have hogged the limelight given his limited resources, yet Ludhiana-based Rangeela has three Punjabi folk albums to his credit and is dreaming big.

Not very faraway in the Fazilka district of Punjab, Major Singh burns the midnight, oil aspiring to crack the civil services examination one day. Both Singh and Rangeela have one thing in common-their occupation. Both are rickshaw pullers, albeit in a separate league. They are part of a network in Punjab where, just like the dial-a-cab facility in top metros of the country, residents dial-a-rickshaw--to be corr­ect an eco-cab as they prefer it.  
This facility in various Punjab towns is redefining the entire spectrum of this age-old occupation, slowly transforming lives of those earning a living out of it. It has defined a structure to this unorga­nised set-up to the advantage of both the user and the rickshaw puller. Besides, it promises to take care of a whole lot of critical issues like traffic congestion, air pollution, parking, and road safety.     
Here's how it works. About 4,000 eco-cabs in Fazilka, Patiala, Amritsar and a few other districts in Punjab are just a call away. The facility is available 9 to 5 all days of the week. A standard Rs 5 per km is charged from those using the service. A feedback mechanism, too,  is in place where customers can lodge their protest in case of overcharging or misbehaviour. Like in motor cabs, an initial Rs 10 "start-up cost" is added to the bill for reaching your doorstep.    
In the heart of border town Fazilka, where the concept was set rolling by a team of young and spirited IIT graduates, a tea vendor sits under the shade of a tree and acts as a "customer care executive" handling close to 50 calls a day on phone from custo­mers seeking rickshaws. The facility is now available  online as well. 

Talking to Deccan Herald, Navdeep Asija, who heads the Graduates Welfare Association-Fazilka, a local NGO,  explained as to how the concept has empowered those pushing hard on the pedal. The most scary part of the life of a rickshawala is the thought of his illness or that of his family. "His entire earnings are drained out in one go in case of a medical emergency. 
For those who are a part of the eco-cab concept, we have arranged for free treatment for the entire family," he said.     
Asija said the association has tied up with nine private doctors in the small town of Fazilka where these people can walk in, take treatment and walk out healthy, free of charge, he added. A tie-up for heavily discounted medicine at chemist shops has also been made to lessen the cost of treatment. Two laboratories provide almost free diagnostic facilities to registered rickshaw pullers. The association is also looking at workable options for sustained education of children of these people. "The idea is to address everyday issues of these people, only then will begin a pattern of savings with whatever little to begin with," Asija added. Veeru and Surinder, the two who manage calls from customers in Fazilka, say their business has  provided them with  an identity to live with.     
In Patiala, the concept has found, perhaps, a more structured approach. Here, 3,000-odd green  vehicles have been rolled out under the dial-a-rickshaw project. Rickshawalas don a green uniform. The rickshaws are lighter in weight, more efficient, sturdy and above all financed by State Bank of Patiala. This finance facility  at 4 per cent interest will ensure less exploitation and eventually ownership of the rickshaw to these people. What's more, in  Amritsar and Patiala, these people will  double up as tourist guides. A programme to train them in etiquette, behavioural skills and expertise that are required to be a tourist guide is on the anvil.

The existing Punjab Cycle Rickshaw Act of 1976 is a dampener to the change-in-the-offing, Asija said. An amendment to the Act is being demanded since it lays a cap on the pedallers age at 45 years.     

Asija said the act is likely to be amended to change these clauses. Lured by the uniqueness of the concept, the UT administration of Chandigarh is also exploring possibilities of starting this concept in the city. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States is studying the eco cab project. With an aim at helping civic bodies offset the traditional car-centric development patterns. The project has been titled "Future of Urban Mobility." 

Moving ahead in this direction, a research team from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT has also visited Fazilka to study the concept.

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