Humans are responsible for the state of the earth. Barring the exception of human-powered transport.

charl-folscher-540836-unsplashSome only survived in paintings, museums, history books and movies. While some are still conspicuous by their presence in big and small cities – part of the milieu, culture and even traffic jam. In no uncertain terms, we are referring to human-powered transport.  Of course there are valid debates that shed light on the cruelty meted out to humans that lug this nature of transport, but there are also two significant aspects that cant be denied. (a) The dignified employment it provides (b) The sustainable, pollution-free nature of this transport and its contribution in maintaining earth’s ecological balance.

Without taking any sides, today we bring you a brief history and the current status of a list of vehicles that leave only human footprint, not carbon.

 The Palanquin

A year or two ago, a groom in Bihar hired a palanquin for his wedding. His choice of using the legendary vehicle of ancient India was triggered by poor infrastructure.  The young man’s would-be-bride’s village was way too remote; the roads were narrow and not fit for modern transport.  The Bihari groom, however, is an exception. Barring stray incidents such as these, the palanquin or palki or doli remains non-existent in this day and age. Once a symbol of pride, the borderline poetic vehicle faced a rude extinction by the mid-nineteenth century. Let’s just say, the advent of rail communication, the development of roads, the influx of motorized vehicles and the rise of modern technology killed the palanquin and with that, the poetry romanticizing the ‘kahaar’or the palanquin carrier.  Let’s skim through some interesting palki facts.

  • If medieval India had wedding planners, they’d be decorating palanquins instead of expensive vintage cars. Simply put, back in the day, palanquins were used to ferry brides to the bridegroom.
  • Palanquin is also called ‘palki’ in Hindi and it derives its name from the Sanskrit word ‘palanki’ i.e bed.
  • The palanquin was also a symbol of class division. Even till the mid 19thcentury, its burden was felt by the lower class and aristocrats used it as a mode of transport to go from one place to the other.
  • European traders in Bengal used it to carry their cargo from local markets. In that sense, it was also a business tool.


The Hand-pulled Rickshaw

One of the greatest reminders of our colonial past are the hand pulled rickshaws of Kolkata, the only city in the country that still uses this mode of transport. Physically pulled by one human (often barefoot and scantily clothed) to ferry another human to his or her desired destination – this two-wheeled cart does reek of human exploitation. While some say that this symbol of the Raj is on the brink of exit, the rickshaw pullers of the city seem quite comfortable with the status quo and are not looking forward to going off the roads. During our research, some interesting facts have come up:

  • Hand-pulled rickshaws have been around in Kolkata for over 100 years.
  • While this mode of human transport was introduced by the British to subjugate Indians before India became independent, the hand-pulled rickshaw even survived after the English exit. From being a symbol of suppression, it evolved into a mode of employment for immigrants who flocked from Bihar, Orissa and Bangladesh.
  • Kolkata has nearly 18,000 rickshaw pullers and not all of them have licences.


The Cycle Rickshaw

Carrying children to school in the wee hours of the morning or bringing old couples back from their vegetable shopping – the ‘cycle rickshaw waale bhaiya’ is still an important part of the north Indian life and it’s not going anywhere, anytime soon. They flock together, drop people to shorter distances, chat up the passengers on politics, weather, inflation and so forth. On cold winter mornings, they are often seen sipping hot ginger tea by the roadside and in hot summer afternoons, they nap under amaltas trees. Here are some interesting facts about this important mode of human transport.

  • The cycle rickshaw was introduced way back in the 1930s.
  • There are close to 1 million cycle rickshaws on India roads, carrying about 3-4 billion passengers each year.
  • Modern cycle rickshaws serve 4-5 million zero carbon trips daily.
  • They provide ease of travel to people in cities like Agra, Ghaziabad, Lucknow, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Bharatpur and Mathura.

Want to pull the earth out if its misery? Come forth and push the pedal.

victor-xok-799766-unsplashWhen you think of an island, you think of long stretches of the white shore; you picture sea shells strewn about, you imagine waves crashing against rocks, you dream of exotic fruits growing on trees, and yes, the big one – isolation. But not all islands offer such vistas or such space. Take the island city of Mumbai, for example. With a population touching 24 million, with 700 new vehicles hitting the roads daily, the absence of bus lines and bike lanes, unending metro construction and the newly commissioned coastal road work – Mumbai is anything but an island you’d like to be stranded on.  Or cycling through. Right?

Maybe not.

Truth be told, there are comrades out there who take to the roads on their cycles every single day. Not just adding years to their lives, but also increasing the earth’s life-span through this environmentally conscious choice.

So, who are these people pushing the pedal day after day? What motivates them? What are the risks involved, really? What does their daily trip and their long-term journey look like? Are they from another planet? Or are they just doing their quiet bit to save this planet?

In the day and age of status updates, let’s just review the status of cycling and cyclists in Mumbai city.

The cyclists of Mumbai:

Based on our research, we have divided Mumbai’s cyclists into few broad categories. And created a fictional prototype in each category to offer a better understanding.

The Expat Cyclist: Let’s just call him Mark. He is from Berlin. He works as an art curator in India. He lives in Fort and works in Nariman Point. Back home in Berlin, he would cycle to work everyday. He has carried this habit forward to India and is the only one in his workplace who cycles to work. He owns a good quality cycle; he purchased it from Bandra, complete with gears and a helmet. He follows all traffic rules and often muses about his experiences on social media. A nature lover, Mark thinks Mumbaikars are very helpful towards cyclists. Another colleague of his has been feeling inspired enough to join Mark.

The Student Cyclist: Sumedha cycles to her professional institute in Bandra every single day. She lives in Andheri. She has chosen this mode of transport for purely monetary reasons. Her daily expenses of vada-pav, stationary, books, and a little bit shopping leaves her with very little scope of conveyance money. She doesn’t wear a helmet and the cycle she rides is an old one – it’s a hand me down from her brother. She makes it to college in 30 minutes, while her other public transport friends lag behind by a good half an hour. She saves money; she saves time and a little bit of the Earth.

The Healthy Cyclist.Rahul is in his early forties. He is a Voice Over Artiste. Having done the round-the-clock drill for many years and a health scare later, he has decided to elevate his fitness levels. He rediscovered his love for cycling (something he loved during college) and invested in a nice, expensive ‘bike’ that he can now afford. Rahul’s work doesn’t require him to go to office wearing a corporate suit and so he hops from one studio to other in Khar on his cycle. It keeps him fit. He has been seeing a major change in his health.

The Activist Cyclist:Rhea graduated from Boston, moved back to India, took up a corporate job, quit in six months, trained in Ashtanga Yoga, become a yoga teacher and began a small NGO that works towards making Mumbai greener. All of 23, Rhea celebrated her last birthday by using crowd-sourced funds to plant 1000 trees on the outskirts of Mumbai. Rhea cycles everywhere purely because she wants to do her bit for the planet.

Although demographically apart, each of these categories at some point converge, – either at a flash-mob, or in a night biking tour; or for that matter, over the weekend – cycling through the city.

Their main struggles:

  • Poor roads: Meant nothing like a compliment, Mumbai sometimes feels like the moon. Bumpy, full of craters. The roads through the city have been operated upon and not all of them are stitched back yet. Add to that, potholes punctuate the city. As a cyclist on the way to work or even on a leisure ride, this road condition is a highly risky proposition.
  • Unsupportive weather: Coastal Mumbai gets unbearably humid in the summer months and receives copious amounts of rain during monsoon. Landing up at a meeting with sweat patches in the summer and mud-stained pants when it rains is a huge drawback.
  • Unsafe parking: The lack of secure bike storage is also a consideration. Existing bikers are scared of theft and new bikers feel discouraged due to this reason.

 Hope in the future:

The biggest and the most important step is to keep the narrative going. To shed light on the negatives and highlight the positive. To speak up. To write. To publicize. To use the power of social media for attracting attention. To keep riding the path until the government and the concerned authorities are forced to notice the ignored cyclist on the road.  Better roads, designated cycling lanes, safe parking, shower facilities at office and more than everything, an understanding that the road doesn’t just belong to the four-wheeler.

Join the wave:

You can take your first step by signing up for a night cycling tour . That apart, you can also search online for cycling to work groups, cycling on weekend groups, cycling workout groups and if you are the sort who enjoys a good look at the filmistars – you can head to bandstand and stalk your favourite celebrity on two wheels – many of them come there and peddle their way into Arabian sea sunsets.

Move over self- improvement. Let’s roll our sleeves and improve the planet.

shotinraww-267307-unsplashA day without posting on social media. A week’s dinner minus carbohydrates. A phone-less weekend. A TV-free month. Giving up the everyday elevator to take the stairs. Switching from 11am lattes to 11am coconut water. Trading three hours of the internet for three hours of a good paperback.

Let’s just say, the new breed is all about self-improvement.

What’s important to remember is that two steps ahead of self-improvement lies the improvement of your surrounding. Of the neighbourhood, of the streets you take to work everyday, of the city you live in, of the country, and above all, of the planet. While self-improvement can come from giving up TV or coffee, you can take a small step towards planet-improvement by giving up something that’s toxic for the planet.

No big steps, maybe your car, just for a day.

You might say, it’s easier said than done. And so, we decided to walk the talk and send one of our enthusiastic volunteers from Mumbai to Delhi for a meeting, and back – only through public transport. He jotted down his experience for our readers.

Here’s what he had to say:

“So the day had come. I left my car keys home, picked up my laptop bag and set off for my first bunch of meetings in Mumbai. I was excited at the prospect of travelling by public transport, through and through. Having said that, I realised how bizarre my excitement was – I mean, I had taken public transport for so many years during my college and initial days of working, how come it was suddenly a novelty for me? Outstation trips were no exceptions in the first few years of my career. My parents did the same as upper middle class professionals. It was odd to do this as an experiment. Nevertheless, I tried to cap my over thinking tendencies and put on my observational hat. I was set.

It was a nice breezy January-end morning. I walked to the Metro station close by and within the first few minutes of starting the experiment, I had a truly novel experience – I noticed the trees in bloom. I also spotted my favourite tree, Taman – called the pride of Maharashtra. Thing is, I was so used to sitting with my face dug in my phone during the car drive, I hadn’t noticed the changing seasons in years. I was already happy with my experience. I then took a metro to DN Nagar, hopped in to an auto for a lunch meeting at Prithvi, hailed in a cab with two colleagues for Bhavans college for a short workshop. After that, I walked to Azad Nagar; took metro to Ghatkopar, took central railway (first class coach) and got off at Mulund to take an auto home. So apparently, this trip cycle is common to 5 million passengers everyday. I was amazed to know that. The best part about using the train was that it exposed me to McDonalds, which was a change from my everyday Starbucks. A meal at McDonalds cost me 150 whereas I was so used to spending on Starbucks, a whopping 475 for a coffee and croissant. I, of course, didn’t to my usual business calls but listened to music and watched people around me. It was interesting to imagine people around work – stockbrokers, bankers, government staff, students.

After reaching home, I picked my stroller and left for the airport. I took an auto and enjoyed the wind-chill. And yes, also the bumpy roads. The entire city is dug up and so that took away from the charm of this experience. Having said that, I made the most of it, chatting with the autowallah who told me he was from Rajasthan and had just quit a job and bought an auto. He told me that he now makes more money (nearly 45k) and prefers this to working at the ‘Seth’s’ house. A ride to the airport also turned out a lesson in entrepreneurship, ha!

The flight was good and on the other side of Bombay, lay the Delhi winter and the Delhi public transport. I took the taxi from airport to my hotel in Janpath. Next morning, my meeting was in Old Delhi, and so I took the famed Delhi metro. I decided to walk to the metro in the morning, and took in the joys of Delhi winter. Once I reached old Delhi, I hopped into the cycle rickshaw (pollution free and environment friendly transport option) to my meeting. Thanks to not having a car, and thanks to being in a rickshaw, I maneuvered through the tiny lanes of Old Delhi with ease. I also enjoyed the culture and energy of his historic area. Post my meeting; the same rickshaw dropped me to the metro. I walked to the hotel from the metro station and then, took a taxi to the airport.

I finally landed in Mumbai, and decided to take a bus home.  Guess what, I got the window seat. Small thrills, eh! By the time I reached home, I was tired. But there was a deep sense of achievement about successfully completing the experiment. I had reconnected with nature, I had saved some money, I had discovered new things about my country and its people, but most importantly, I had helped improve the planet – even if that meant, just a wee bit.

The tea that evening tasted sweeter.”