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Reckless Rickshaws

Reckless Rickshaws

February 07, 2010

Never have so many owed so much, to a little, three-wheeled vehicle. What would we, and India, do without them?

It seemed from my time in India that in every little corner of the country, no matter how remote a place might be, autorickshaws were omnipresent. They varied slightly from region to region, but rickshaws they were all the same.

Some were bigger than others, some were different colours, some – especially in Jodhpur – were quite large inside and actually quite ornate; the safety bars inside were made from polished and chromed steel rather than the duller, rusting black bars you find in some. Some had cracked windscreens, some had torn upholstery. Almost all had a religious icon pinned or glued to the dashboard.

Throughout my visit to India, I was working with a microscopic budget. As a result, if I felt confident I knew how to get somewhere by foot, and it wasn’t too far to lug my backpack, I would invariably choose to walk for purely financial reasons. If I arrived in a new town late at night or very early in the morning, or I had a fair distance to travel, or, frankly, if I couldn’t be bothered to carry my bag very far in the soporific humidity, I generally had four alternatives to walking available to me:

1. A cycle rickshaw

2. An auto (rickshaw)

3. A local bus

4. A local taxi (car)

Buses can be difficult to find, and of course only serve the principal routes. In any case, they seldom operate at night. Taxis are relatively expensive. Cycle rickshaws are very slow; with my weight as well as my baggage, and with the rickshaw-wallahs often disadvantaged by poor roads, the cycle rickshaws, or “Indian Helicopters” as they ironically call themselves, were sometimes slower than walking. Faced with a slight incline, they were a lost cause. I’ll make special mention of Kolkata, because their taxi drivers actually use the meters – the exception that proves the rule – and the alternative is hand-pulled rickshaws: these carts have enormous wheels and are each pulled by one remarkably fit, indefatigable rickshaw-wallah. They all seemed capable of running with their rickshaw no matter the improbable load they were pulling. I learned that the huge wheels were to negotiate the annual monsoon flooding and these rickshaws become indispensable at that time of year when the traffic is impeded. Personally, I had no need for one in December, but it was interesting to see them nonetheless.

The autos, I found, were like Goldilocks’ porridge. Just right. Less expensive than a taxi, faster than a cycle rickshaw, and more flexible than the buses, they are quick, affordable (haggling notwithstanding) and highly manoeveurable, making them ideal for negotiating heavy traffic and dodging the most severe potholes. Because the sides are normally open, you also feel and hear more of your surroundings. Granted, all you can hear at times is growling traffic and incessant horn-blowing, and on the wider roads they’re not for the faint-hearted. You certainly feel a sense of your own mortality bundling down a major road in a tiny rickshaw with a heaving bus to one side and an articulated truck to the other! And the cardinal rule is to always, always keep your hands inside the cabin…

But they are so efficient, hardy, and so brilliant in their simplicity, they make for a great way of getting around. I managed to squeeze into one of the smaller autos in Varanasi with two of my friends and all our baggage. It was a common sight to see a whole family shoehorned in to the back seat, driven by an unflinching driver. Where would India be without them?


  • Akanksha Dureja
    Akanksha Dureja
    25.08.12 02:47 PM
    Loved the way you described the common man's cab of India! :)
    Any day in India would sure be incomplete if you don't encounter one of them. And the stories these auto rickshaw drivers tell, are awesome too!
  • Jishnu
    17.04.12 02:56 PM
    In a city like Kolkata, it is practically the lifeline, albeit with a pinch of salt. The buses in the suburbs are overcrowded. It's hard to get on one in rush hour, and they keep stopping at every possible opportunity to let more people board, even if it's notthe designated bus stop. Autos are not as cheap as buses, but they are more comfortable, and they are fast. At night, sometimes they are safer for women as well, who feel insecure in empty buses. Taxis are usually unaffordable for the young middle class, and autos, despite being a mojor reason behind the slow traffic, are indispensible.
  • Kirklops
    21.09.11 10:15 AM
    It wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that if you travel in an auto on indian roads and survive, then you'll believe that god exists.
  • CARiD
    15.08.11 12:46 PM
    I always prefer to use my feet instead of hiring a taxi especially if I’m not in a hurry to get to a certain place but sometimes it’s really more convenient to hire an autorickshaw especially if you’re not familiar with the place. Like you’ve said rickshaws were less expensive than taxis and more convenient that walking. It also gives the passengers a chance to relax and observe the surrounding.
  • Adrian Hands
    Adrian Hands
    05.01.11 06:26 PM
    All the autos (auto-rickshaws) here in Delhi have been converted to (relatively) clean-burning compressed natural gas (CNG), one problem addressed!
  • Sangeeta
    18.08.10 07:56 PM
    I stay in the Middle East, and so miss hailing down a rickshaw the first thing I get out of my house....:(

    Thanks for visiting my blog and ur vote on Indivine
  • Md Muddassir shah
    Md Muddassir shah
    29.07.10 06:20 AM
    I have to say , You have got a very wonderful blog here and you write equally good.
    I concur with you on use of fuel; the noise and emissions - there is a lot of room for improvement. But you know, that is not going to happen.
    For all political reasons, Autowallahs form the core strength of the political system, they are representatives of lower middle class and not politician is going against, else it's hell's wrath and public fury for them.

    and again, congrats, I like your writings :)
  • Nikhil
    11.02.10 06:17 AM
    True, it isn't cheap...but they give a good average run per litre as compared to cars and run on diesel not petrol which is relatively cheaper!
  • James Douglas
    James Douglas
    10.02.10 06:04 PM
    Hi Nikhil, thank you for your comment...

    I wondered about the fuel - if I'm not mistaken, fuel isn't particularly cheap in India (relatively), yet the cost of rickshaw travel remains low...and you rarely seem to see them filling up at a pump!

    The noise they make, I actually just considered to be part of the package; as for the emissions - definitely room for improvement there!

  • Nikhil
    10.02.10 07:06 AM
    They are an integral part of life in India and in fact a very fuel efficient means of public transport...only wish someone did something about the noise they make and the fumes they exude :-)...

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