At first glance, 43-year-old Jamun looks like any other rickshaw puller in Delhi - a lean body and a face with distinct cheekbones and unkempt graying stubs. As he pulls his rickshaw closer, his face glows like that of a child showing off his new, prized possession.
Jamun’s new acquisition is a customized cycle rickshaw. With padded seats, a bottle-holder, the day’s newspaper, dustbin, a fixed tariff, advertisement space, and an extended roof that covers the rider and not just the passenger – it’s a modern-day rickshaw.
But it is not the looks of the brand-new vehicle that makes Jamun upbeat. That he ‘owns’ it – thanks to a socially-engineered project – is the fact that he finds overwhelming. “In my 13 years of work, I had not even dared to dream of having my own rickshaw,” says Jamun, who is not alone in basking in the new-found freedom from usurious clutches of ‘contractors’.
Liberating rickshaw pullers and offering them a hope in life is in fact the dream of an enterprising group of students from Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC). The good-hearted students, along with an international non-profit organization, Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE), are doing something more than their academic pursuits.
Get, Set, Go! Rickshaw pullers can now chase
“The project helps rickshaw pullers to take a loan and buy their own customized rickshaws, setting off a secured system of savings for themselves and their family,” sums up Radhika Goel, President, SRCC SIFE.
Of the 2,500 rickshaws plying on the streets, 95 percent are not owned by pullers. They hire the rickshaws from local contractors, without giving any deposit, often on the guarantee of a fellow rickshaw puller. It’s a simple process of lending, but it triggers an exploitative system of mortgage.
While the contractor merely lends his rickshaw, in exchange for an exorbitant rental of Rs 40 a day, the rickshaw puller also pledges his dignity, his very existence and that of his family!
“The rickshaws are not well-maintained. If it breaks down, we have to repair it at our own cost. Let alone demanding fair play from the contractors, we are often beaten up, and abused in public,” says Girija Shankar, another rickshaw puller helped by SRCC SIFE.
The students help them to not just procure loan from Punjab National Bank, but also buy customized rickshaws. The daily repayment of Rs 40 to the contractor is now navigated to the bank, which is only a one-year window repayment towards the eventual ownership of the rickshaw. In addition, they have the advantage of accidental insurance premium and revenue from advertisements, which is shared between the rickshaw puller, and SRCC SIFE fund. So, in one year, a rickshaw puller can manage to save Rs 20,000 to 25,000.
“As an extension of our moral duty, we have recently entered into a tie-up with Max HealthCare, providing health benefits to the rickshaw pullers and their families,” says Ashima Gupta, another SRCC SIFE volunteer.
The current team of SRCC SIFE graduates next year. But before they leave the campus, they will pass the baton on to their juniors. So the dream lives on to illuminate more faces like that of Jamun.