After the government had decided to ban battery-operated rickshaws for a number of specified reasons, a lack of preparations on the part of the quarters concerned to rehabilitate these rickshaw pullers through alternate job creation became apparent. Those rickshaw drivers lost their only source of earning and there was general public discontent about the abrupt execution of the apparently well-reasoned government move. The discontent got louder and turned into an outcry when images of bulldozing of these mechanized rickshaws by the law enforcement agencies started to appear on national news media. This became another example of another government initiative implemented and executed poorly, with no groundwork and not informing the public about the rationale behind the decision. Their only livelihood option was taken away all of a sudden; thousands of these low-income members of society were at a loss, and felt that the government and society have no mercy for them.
These rickshaw-pullers are in general impoverished and these mechanised rickshaws were their only means of livelihood and all had several family members dependent on them. Notwithstanding the criticisms about the weakness in the safety features and poor functionality of these rickshaws and several previous campaigns and attempts to ban them, the reality is that these vehicles have been quite popular, economical, and widely used particularly in the periphery of Dhaka and other large cities as well as in all district towns. These have become a convenient alternative mode of transportation for the common people when the public and formal private sector failed to offer an alternative mode of transportation for the millions of rural people of Bangladesh. When the government's task force to "strengthen order on-road transport sector and control road accidents" recommended a ban on the battery-run rickshaws and rickshaw-vans across the country, the government complied with this while there were other more important and critical recommendations that remained practically ignored. Since the other decisions were difficult to impose due to resistance from powerful vested quarters, the decision focused on a rather soft target- the poor auto-rickshaw who had no support or sympathy from the social elites.
The actual number of battery-operated rickshaws and vans will never be known in a country where how many buses, trucks, motorcycles, cars, and other formal sector vehicles ply on the streets remain unknown. However, the number of these so-called "rogue" rickshaws appear to be quite large. The government's registration system for motorised vehicles in the formal sector has never been fully operational. And in this country vehicle registration, vehicle tax, fitness certificate, licensing of the drivers have remained only suggestive rather than obligatory just like the country's traffic lights and laws that no one including members of the law enforcement agency bother to follow. However, for the government, it is indeed quite difficult to keep track of these locally assembled vehicles in particular and bring these under any sort of surveillance system given the workforce include few inspectors, officials and the regulators lack competency and willingness.
Battery-run rickshaws and vans are locally-assembled and modified and these vehicles were considered hazardous; these caused many accidents and fatalities as they collided with other vehicles and hit people. These vehicles lacked proper braking system-only the front wheel has brakes. Therefore, these vehicles frequently overturned while trying to stop due to their unmanageable speed.
Another argument against these informal rickshaws and vans were their using lead-acid batteries. Also, the electricity usage for charging these batteries and the public health and environmental impact of their indiscriminate use, disposal, and recycling of batteries were issues of concern. Lead-acid batteries used to power these vehicles have detrimental health effects and lead poisoning has been very poorly understood, recorded, or investigated in Bangladesh. With the intent to understand the battery-related issues and the impact of the government ban, a few short and quick interviews were organised with a few dozen rickshaw pullers in Khokhsha, Kushtia, Savar, Dhaka, and Munshigonj town to get a better sense of the scope of the issue and their views on solutions and the aftermath.
The respondents were driving battery-operated rickshaws for about 5 years on average. Each vehicle had 4 batteries. They bought these batteries from many places -not from any particular store or dealer and the set cost them 44,000 taka. After about 6 months, they returned these batteries for about 20000 taka refund. On average, these batteries ran for about 6 months and these were not necessarily returned to the same store from where they were bought. The rickshaw pullers were somewhat aware of the health hazards and the poisonous contents inside, but they claimed that they prevented their children from coming in contact with these as they returned home late at night and children were usually in bed by then. Also, the batteries were charged outside their main dwelling reducing the exposure to the family members.
In response to the question, if they would be willing to use a battery-swapping station, they replied negatively as they would lose flexibility on when and where to charge as they were always on the move and could not predict or control their travel plans or destinations. About paying tax, they knew that they were not paying tax to the government; they also knew that the sellers/dealers were unlikely to pay taxes when they purchased or sold it. Most were concerned about the quality of the batteries they used and suspected that those were not formally manufactured. On where did the batteries go when they returned it, they claimed to have no idea. However, they expressed their willingness to pay more for high-quality products - about 50,000 taka if these lasted for at least one year. About their additional electricity bills for charging these batteries, it was about 1500 taka more a month of charging each night for 8 hours. On the question of what would be their occupation if battery vehicles were banned, they listed these as alternate livelihoods: digging soil; fishing; working as day labourer; farming; driving paddled rickshaws; welding business.
It takes so much effort to get people out of poverty in this country but alas it takes a quick and sudden move to push thousands of them back into poverty in a society that is already highly segregated and rigidly hierarchical. Could a better licensing mechanism for these vehicles after necessary structural changes save so many jobs while helping the rural economy thrive further?
Dr Hasnat M Alamgir is a Professor of Public Health. [email protected]