August 11, 2013

Delhi’s Battery Powered Eco-friendly Rickshaws

Last November, before the cold set in, I exited the Chandni Chowk metro and made my way through crowded streets on foot, taking in the bustle on the road and beyond, juggling between dodging pedestrians and peeking into roadside establishments, only pausing upon spotting a massive Sikh outside the Sis Ganj Sahib Gurdwara, guarding the entrance, his muscular hand effortlessly cradling an equally intimidating spear.

The Sis Ganj Gurdwara (a gurdwara is a place of worship for Sikhs) stood on the Chandni Chowk street; its gold-gilded domes surmounting the sandstone structure shone in the sun.

I hadn’t seen a Sikh this big before and it was probably no coincidence that the community that prides itself in its martial origins choose him to straddle the entrance, more so in the context of the origin of the Sis Ganj Sahib Gurdwara itself.

It was here, in 1675, that Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, was beheaded on the orders of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, for refusing to convert to Islam. The Sis Ganj Sahib Gurdwara was built on the site of his execution by Aurangzeb to honour his memory and sacrifice.  

Islam spread in India largely on the strength of the sword brought to bear on the native population by a succession of Muslim invaders, and not everyone had the courage to resist conversion to Islam like Guru Tegh Bahadur did, and many who did resist and paid with their lives are long forgotten.


On either side of the Chandni Chowk road, shops abound. Schools, restaurants, clothing stores, hotels, jewellery shops and roadside vendors among others crowd the road that connects Town Hall and Ballimaran to the West with Red Fort to the east.

Labourers loaded a Haath Gadi (hand-pulled wooden cart on two wheels) with large bobbins with flanges, the contents of which were hidden behind packaging. Haath Gadi is a cheap alternative to motorized transport over short distances and among the surest signs you’re in old trading hubs.

Pedal and battery-powered rickshaws together with rows of beaten blue wagons of the Central Baptist Church Primary School, each fabricated to fit onto the back of cycle rickshaws, further added to the familiar bustle of Chandni Chowk, the one place where you can be assured of much of the character India was, and hopefully still is, famous for – vibrancy of the street, or chaos as some will characterize it.

A man sat reading a newspaper in one of the blue wagons. Each cycle rickshaw was numbered and labelled with ‘Central Baptist Church Primary School’.

I imagined school children making a beeline for these school transports the moment the final bell rang, no doubt scrambling for their favourite seats in the beat-up wagons.

K tells me these cycle-rickshaws improvised with covered carriages for use in ferrying children to school and back were a fairly common sight in much of Delhi until early-1990s, eventually making way for school buses, partly after parents (and in some instances, schools) became safety conscious. Moreover, school buses made for quicker and comfortable journeys. As opposed to the rickshaw-wagon that accommodated between 6-7 school children, a school bus accommodated upwards of 30 children.

Moreover there was an element of status consciousness among certain sections of Delhi society once affluence began to trickle into upmarket social circles. The school ka rickshaw trundling to the door step would no longer do.

While the blue carrier rickshaws in Chandni Chowk above appear to belong to or are authorised by the Central Baptist Church Primary School, it wasn't so with most schools back then. Each rickshaw was owned and operated by the rickshaw drivers, ensuring a steady income through the academic year.

To this day these tri-cycle school ka rickshaws can still be seen in some parts of Delhi.  

I had just stepped out of the Digambar Jain Mandir (Lal Mandir) at the intersection of Chandni Chowk Road with Netaji Subhash Marg when I stumbled into furious solicitation of passengers by burly drivers at the steering of battery-powered rickshaws that I had only heard about in the year before.

Variously called e-Tricycles, the three-wheelers were a much trumpeted addition to Delhi roads on the eve of the Commonwealth Games, a visible effort at going eco-friendly, something one of these rickshaws displayed proudly on the canopy above the driver.

It read: "Eco-Friendly. Battery Operated". And if the words were insufficient to push home the message, the green background ensured they did.  

I’ll leave the debate on ‘Are batteries eco-friendly?’ for another time if for nothing else than for the fact that atleast the Govt. is thinking in the right direction.

Men and women, some lugging purchases made in the bazaars of Chandni Chowk crowded the few battery-powered rickshaws outside the Jain temple. The Red Fort stood to my right, its ramparts marking the skyline.

I had gone looking for the Bird Hospital in the temple complex where rude caretakers keep an eagle-eye on visitors for signs they’re about to step an inch beyond the imaginary (and invisible lines) they’ve drawn to mark the limit beyond which they cannot wear their footwear.

The battery-powered rickshaws, limited to speeds below 25 kmph and powered by a motor less than 250 kW, were originally meant to connect commuters from pick-up points with Metro stations. A rate was fixed for the distance between boarding points and the Metro Station.

The Chandni Chowk Metro Station was located a 10-12 minute walk away from where I stood outside the Jain temple, discounting the time it takes to get through the crowds. If you’re one for looking into shops along the way, and I see no reason why one wouldn’t be curious of what lay beyond the shop fronts given their eclectic wares, I’d subtract a few more minutes from the walk.

Even so, a ride in one of the eco-friendly rickshaw saves hassled pedestrians time and energy, more so if they’re lugging their purchases.

The rickshaw drivers call out to commuters the moment they draw up at the boarding point. The quicker they reach capacity, the more rounds they can notch up between the Metro station and boarding-points, translating to more earnings for the day.

The rickshaws I saw had seating space for four, two facing two, though I saw a fifth squeezing in on more than one occasion, and a sixth who shared seating with the rickshaw driver upfront.

A family of five fresh from shopping in Chandi Chowk haggled with the rickshaw driver of one of these eco-friendly rickshaws to accommodate them at the expense of a solitary commuter already seated in the rickshaw.

They presented him with no-brainer – “All five of us or none”.

Not one to let his conscience get in between business choices, he requested the seated passenger to get off to make way for the “five”, telling him, “There’s another rickshaw behind mine. Get into it.”

He was not about to turn the five down for one ‘liability’.

The visibly displeased man, hounded by the sight of the family of five glaring at him with a sense of righteousness unique to collective bargaining, muttered curses under his breath before getting off. I could only hope he didn’t have to contend with another family of five at the next rickshaw he sought.

The family got on, and the rickshaw sauntered past me.


Also known as Electric Tricycle, the sale of these “pollution-free” battery-operated three-wheelers are advertised as a means to earn 20-25 K monthly.

As they’re limited to under 25 kmph and powered by a motor less than 250 kW, they do not come under the purview of the Motor Vehicles Act and do not require vehicle registration or a driver’s license to operate them.

Eco-friendly rickshaws are fine. 

But what Delhi really needs is commuter-friendly rickshaw drivers who do not pick and choose the routes they want to ply, especially the 'notorious' green and yellow rickshaws. 

Further Reading


Connie said...

Fascinating pictures and account here, Anil. Very interesting. :)

Balachandran V said...

Like you said, the Eco-friendliness of battery is questionable. However, it is a move in the right direction. Looking at the wide and long hood over the tri-wheeler, I wonder if they could put up solar panels there and use it for electricity?

The tri-cycles of Central Baptist church primary school is a story by itself!

Wish you had taken a photo of the 'awesome' Sardar at the Gurudwara!

Cycling is really catching up in the country, you know. Now that the fancy, expensive foriegn bicycles are available in India and Indian companies themselves are manufacturing sport cycles, a revolution could be in the offing! It has caught the imagination of young techhies - with a bicycle of this kind costing upward of Rs.20000/- it is making a statement too!

Anuradha Shankar said...

that last line could hold true of most cities in India today, Anil. mumbai is no better these days. however, the battery operated auto does seem to be a good idea. hope something similar comes up here too. ur post brought back my last visit to delhi when i visited the red fort and walked past the sis ganj gurudwara.... longing to go back soon!

Riot Kitty said...

As always, thank you for the history lesson!

dr.antony said...

Hi Anil
Just back, after so long !
I am looking at some of your older posts. I missed many of them.

Anil P said...

Daisy: Thank you.

Balachandran V: It sure is questionable, excepting, maybe, in comparison with fossil fuels. I think there was a plan to fit solar panels as you mention.

But I didn't see any rickshaws fitted with solar panels. But I believe it was an idea the Govt started with.

I too wish I had the picture of the imposing Sikh guarding the Gurdwara entrance.

That's right. Cycling culture is catching up again, and to think when I was growing up, all we did was cycle and cycle, logging hundreds of kms, far more than what an average cyclist now might as a hobby.

We cycled out of necessity, and fun of course.

Anuradha Shankar: Battery-operated rickshaws are a good idea no doubt if one is okay with the low speeds, and is not in a hurry to get someplace.

Riot Kitty: Thank you :-)

Dr. Antony: Good to see you back :-)