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Just Get Out Of The Way!

In “Manushi Sangathan v. Govt. of Delhi”, the Delhi High court lifted the restrictions on rickshaw pulling in the city. The cap on the number of rickshaws set by local authorities was discarded. MCD’s decision of not allowing more than 99,000 was an arbitrary limit on the number of rickshaws, the court judged. The government policy that the rickshaw plier should be its own owner too was taken off. MCD was asked to provide parking space for rickshaws too. “The right of an individual or citizen to ply cycle rickshaw or other forms of transport falls within the legitimate exercise of his freedom guaranteed under the Fundamental Rights of the Constitution”, said the bench. An early ruling was that Rickshaw pullers evoked “pity” and that the job was “degrading”. Fortunately, this has changed for good. This is a victory of freedom over coercion-of man over the state. It is sad, however that the high court stressed that non-motorized vehicles were the need of the hour in the wake of rising pollution and global warming. So, the decision was partly based on altruist, collectivist grounds.

Government regulations were choking rickshaw pullers in the city for a long time. Most of the rickshaws operated illegally. According to an estimate of Manushi Sangathan, rickshaw pullers in Delhi pay in total Rs 10 crore a month as bribe. It should be remembered that this amount is mulcted from people who earn less than 100 rupees for a 15-hour day. Every year hundreds of thousands of rickshaws are confiscated by the authorities, and tens of thousands of vehicles junked and destroyed. All this impedes incentives to innovate and invest in higher quality vehicles.

Only a small part of the population in Delhi own motorized vehicles, and rickshaws are a viable mode of transportation for a large part of the rest. Rickshaws are inexpensive and solve the problem of parking for many people. Private rag pickers who recycle the garbage also use trolley rickshaws, which is a cost effective and pollution free way of garbage recycling-especially when you compare it to diesel based vehicles. It is used for transporting heavy goods, which is a very important service. It is also pointed out that Rickshaws reduce pollution and prevents eve teasing. Yet, rickshaw pullers were not allowed to own more than one vehicle or use vehicles owned by someone else. This prevents people from owning vehicles at all, as they won’t be able to transfer it to someone else when they take a day off-or, even to keep it safe. What is forgotten is that it takes only a very small capital to own a fleet of hundreds of rickshaws. Yet, the government calls them “mafia dons”. The service these “middlemen” do to rickshaw pullers and passengers is not recognized. As Madhu Purnima Kishwar rightfully pointed out, “It is ironical that in this day and age of liberalization, it is far easier to set up a new airline or own a mammoth fleet of trucks and buses-, if one has the money for it— than to legally own two or twenty cycle rickshaws.” Then, there are fleet owners who are happy with the regime (license-quota system) as it prevents competitors from entering the market and driving down the prices.

The licensing of rickshaws made ownership out of the reach of poor people. It also provided opportunities for government officials to collect hefty bribes for issuing and renewing licenses. Decisions are made on their arbitrary bureaucratic whims. One fallacious argument is that rickshaws cause congestion. But, it should be obvious that a single rickshaw can carry so many people the same day, and would only reduce congestion. How logical is it, then to impose ceilings on the number of rickshaws and not on other vehicles? It is also said that migrant rickshaw pullers will place strains on the “civic infrastructure” of Delhi. Nothing can be more absurd than that. People migrate to a city only when they realize they are better off doing so-which means: their service will be highly valued in the city to which they wish to migrate. Surely, one wouldn’t argue other highly paid professionals shouldn’t be allowed to move to cities when it makes sense to do so. Government has no non-arbitrary way of deciding the right number of rickshaws in the city as it lacks profit-loss signals. And the Government should have no right to do so. It shouldn’t be determined by bureaucratic fiat, forcing others to a life of poverty and crime. The Governments attitude towards rickshaw pullers proves all its poverty alleviation schemes are a sham.

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