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.

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