“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”

― John Bunyan

In the technology-driven world of today, one would have expected rickshaws to disappear with the fast growth of modern, motorized transport. Instead, the numbers of rickshaws have increased amazingly in the last couple of years. In the absence of any alternate mode of transport for short distances, the rickshaws meet the need for urban and sub-urban mobility in middle and lower-middle income neighborhoods; and provide a low-cost means to transport household goods and furniture. In the present –day environment where we are talking about global warming and climatic changes, the cycle rickshaws happen to be the  only the green mode of transportation, by its very nature of avoiding carbon emissions.

It was just a ride in a cycle rickshaw that moved an Assam based veterinary surgeon, Dr Pradip Kumar Sarmah, and got him thinking into setting up the concept of ‘Rickshaw Bank’. The concept today has changed the lives of more than 10000 rickshaw pullers in six states in India.

Rickshaw bank

Dr Sarmah (52), the innovator of this concept, explained that majority of the rickshaw pullers drive rented rickshaws as they have no access to banks and end  up paying the cost of the rickshaw many times over. “Once when I traveling by one such rickshaw in Guwahati, I struck a conversation with the rickshaw puller, who told me that even after 16 years, he did not own his vehicle and hired the rickshaw at a daily rate of Rs 25. After paying the rent, the man was left with barely Rs 50. I was disturbed with the story of the person as with the rent he had paid, he could have owned the rickshaw many times over,” he said.

The man’s answers to Pradip’s questions intrigued him, leading him to engage in a much wider study about the lives of rickshaw pullers. What he found deeply disturbed him: The vast majority of India’s estimated 10 million rickshaw pullers don’t own their own rickshaws; rather, they are caught in a cycle of debt and looked down upon by society. They do not have health or accident insurance. The poor rickshaw pullers were always in debt and could never afford to buy their own rickshaw. Their bodies endure extreme stress and age quickly. Despite the fact that many pullers are immigrants from more rural parts of India looking for work, their upward mobility in society—socially and economically—remains static.

Pradip’s curiosity and empathy for the man he met that day became the seed of his latest venture: the Rickshaw Bank, part of the Center for Rural Development. It was his ability to understand the reality of that rickshaw puller that provided him with the necessary perspective to develop real solutions that would impact and improve the rickshaw puller’s life. With support from engineering students, he reinvented the way the rickshaws work, making them simultaneously stronger, safer, and capable of displaying advertising that would allow the pullers to own their own rickshaws up front. By familiarizing himself with user needs and taking their feedback into account, Pradip has allowed thousands of rickshaw pullers to participate in the rickshaw bank, and he is now spreading his methods across India and throughout Asia through a grassroots movement and national policy advocacy work.

Sarmah, who is also the founder of Centre for Rural Development (CRD), says” no manufacturer had confidence in the new design.” He had no choice but to set up his own manufacturing unit. “We started the unit in 2004, recruited local youth and trained them,” he says. They soon became a team of 40 and a name was given to the new rickshaws- Deep Bahan. “By November 2004, 80 rickshaws were out on the roads in one day,” he recalls. But the problems did not end there. Getting a license, identity proof, and insurance for the drivers was another challenge. He got an insurance scheme customized for the rickshaw pullers in collaboration with an insurance company. The basic model costs Rs.13,000, but with accessories of a solar panel, 3 lights, a FM Radio, insurance, license fee from municipal corporation, 2 sets of uniform, and a pair of chappals, the price is Rs.16,000.By end of 2013, around 10,000 rickshaw pullers have benefitted from the scheme. The project has also got support from many philanthropic organizations. In 2006, Sarmah invited 10 different organizations from different states to Guwahati for a workshop on their rickshaw. Today, the Rickshaw Bank concept has been replicated in cities like Lucknow, Varanasi, Allahabad, Agartala, Surat and Chennai.

Sarmah informed that after surveying about 300 rickshaw-pullers in Guwahati, he found that over 95 per cent shared similar plight. He pointed out that there are about 70,000 rickshaws in Guwahati, and over ten million rickshaws in India. “In India, Banks provide loans for purchasing any kind of vehicle except a cycle rickshaw. The common reason was that most of the pullers were migrants,” he said.

It took in nearly a year and half for Sarmah to come up with a solution to help in the rickshaw pullers, as paucity of funds was the major issue. He informed that during his student days at the Assam Agricultural University, they had raised money for journals from companies by getting advertisements. “We decided to go for a similar approach and decided that the rickshaws could display the company advertisements which could reach thousands of consumers.” I had a friend in the IIT- Guwahati’s design department, who designed a rickshaw with large exteriors which could display the company advertisements for us,” he said.

They then approached a lot of companies and the response which they got was very good. “Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and Hindustan Unilever Limited were the three companies which decided to sponsor for the advertisements. We received around Rs 7 lakhs from each of the companies which was around Rs 7000 per rickshaw for a period of 3 years,” he said.

Dr Sarmah informed that Centre for Rural Development (CRD), his Guwahati based Non-Government Organization has different models in different states. “We have developed 7 to 8 different concepts like the ‘Momo cart’, ‘vegetable cart’, and ‘fast food cart’ based on the requirement in different states. The concept is the same, the pullers pay the rent and after a certain time frame the ownership is transferred,” he said.

The Rickshaw Bank of CRD has brought a hope to the rickshaw pullers by providing a newly designed rickshaw, with insurance and license at an affordable cost with facilitating their solidarity for rights and livelihood. The first prototype of the newly designed Rickshaw was developed by The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati. The pilot phase of the Rickshaw Bank was launched in Guwahati and later it was expanded to the other areas in Assam and outside Assam too. The project was started with much hype on November 20, 2004; and over the years, it has emerged itself as the flagship project of CRD. CRD is the only organization in the world which has exclusively focusing on different development issues of the rickshaw pullers and working continuously with its Rickshaw Bank project.  It is pleased to work with financial assistance of Punjab National Bank (PNB) and Millepede Foundation- an international charitable trust.

He informed that in Punjab, where they have initiated the concept, Punjab National Bank (PNB) has come out with its own scheme to finance rickshaws. “The concepts in different states are been implemented on a stand-alone basis with the help of local NGO’s.Speaking on his future plans, Sarmah informed that they have come out with a pilot concept called ‘ Soleckshaw’- which is a solar powered rickshaw in Delhi. “This was developed along with the Centre for Science and Research and would cost around Rs 30000. This concept once fully implemented would help in the reduction of pollution and also reduce the consumption of fuels like petrol and diesel,” he said.

Sarmah was invited by United Nations Development Program to give a presentation on his work with rickshaw pullers.   He was recently invited to present his case study to Harvard Business School and also MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), where he stated that stated that financing rickshaw pullers could become a huge business opportunity. “With nearly 10 million rickshaw pullers in the country and an average loan size of Rs 8000 to Rs 10000 per puller, imagine the magnitude of business any financial institution can generate through it,” he added.

Today Sarmah is a contented man. He is happy that his work has helped rickshaw pullers positively and tremendously. “They have become owners now. Their life style has changed. Now their children can go to schools. They have a proper contact with banks, valid ID cards, license and insurance,” he says.