[This has been cross-posted at Drishtipat here]
Please download the Rickshaw-Development-proposal.pdf
The challenge was to propose an idea which would have the greatest impact on poverty alleviation in Bangladesh. After nine months of living and working in the country as volunteers, my colleague Thomas Wipperman and I realised that the answer was all around us. There are many marginalised groups in Bangladesh; indigenous people, farmers afflicted by the Monga famines, HIV sufferers – but they compromise a tiny minority in a country of over 145 million. When the purpose of intervention is to reach as many people as possible at the lowest end of the social scale, the stand-out constituency is the rickshaw pullers. Rickshaw pullers are the essential cogs in Bangladesh’s machine. And they deserve better.
Therefore, through the nationalisation and rationalisation of non motorised urban transport, we propose to incorporate the two million rickshaw pullers in Bangladesh into the formal economy as public workers within a sustainable, pollution-free, low cost urban transport network. If the rickshaw industry were nationalised, passengers would not simply be paying someone to cycle them around, they would be contributing to Bangladesh’s biggest public service, a bigger transportation economy than Biman and the Railways combined. By formalising this enormous economy – 6% of Bangladesh’s GDP – we believe it would be possible to bring economic and social uplift to rickshaw pullers, bring better public transport to Bangladesh’s cities, and reach nearly 15% of the total population. Our proposal is sweeping in its scope but efficient in its implementation. It is a feasible and equitable way of bringing positive change to some of Bangladesh’s most marginalised communities
If an intervention wishes to make as large a social impact as possible then taking account the combination of the community size, and its economic and social contribution and position, targeting the conditions of rickshaw pullers has to be a priority. As bideshis, it seems to us that considering their importance to Bangladesh’s economic, social and cultural life and how hard they toil towards this, the scarcity of reward enjoyed by rickshaw pullers, their lack of rights and lowly status is astonishing. Our proposal would aim to raise their social status, increase their income and ensuring that this is secure, and rationalise the transport of Bangladesh so that it can be more efficient and effective, which is essential for any country’s wider development.
Crucially, the behaviour of users will have to change very little, and the economic cost to them of the change will be zero. Service users would simply find that what was once a private service is now a public one, and they would need to purchase tokens from local retailers, a viable and already tested system for other services. At the same time, every single person who uses a rickshaw in Bangladesh – almost the entire population will become a stakeholder; will directly contribute to the alleviation of poverty, disadvantage and inequity amongst the people of Bangladesh. The beauty of our proposal lies in its simplicity, and economic sustainability. After living and working here it is obvious that Bangladesh, despite the challenges it faces, has some of the hardest working, most patriotic and determined people in the world. It also has wealth, a fluid cash economy – but like most countries, too much cash ends up concentrated in tiny minority. We have tried, therefore, to devise a scheme that can harness that passion, commitment, and surplus capital with the minimum disruption to the cultural fabric of the nation. Nationwide approximately $4.1 million flows in to the rickshaw economy every day. $2.9m remains the property of the rickshaw pullers. The excess $1.2m is therefore money that, were the rickshaw sector nationalised, could flow back every day in to the Bangladeshi state – $529m per year. Given that the Bangladeshi national budget for 2007-2008 totalled $12.63 billion, with $3.83b allocated under the Annual Development Plan (ADP), our project would effectively introduce an increase of 14% to the ADP. And the cost of implementing our proposal? We estimate this to be around $160m, which set against guaranteed annual revenue of over $500m, is certainly justifiable.
This proposal’s five main objectives are designed to have as wide an impact as is possible without causing disruption to this vital transport network. It will bring economic security to the rickshaw puller with the creation of a regular income stream; it will facilitate the raising of rickshaw pullers’ social status by making them formal public workers with rights and responsibilities; it will generate substantial, sustainable capital for investment into upgrading rickshaw garage infrastructure, bringing health and other social benefits to rickshaw pullers; it will incorporate rickshaw pullers into society by making their garages centres of development activity and education; and it will improve the standard of public transport in Bangladesh’s urban centres.
Whilst an intervention of this scale would require careful management and meticulous organisation, we believe that it is far from utopian, or unrealistic given the challenges faced by the government of Bangladesh. On the contrary, an intervention on this scale could only be managed by an authority with the scope and power of the State, and the political incentives to the government for pursuing an eminently realisable goal are obvious. The legitimacy of any government, especially in a democratic system rests on how it manages the welfare of the people under its charge. We believe that our proposal clearly would make a huge positive contribution to the welfare of nearly 15% of Bangladeshis, specifically those who need it most, and the benefits of adopting our proposal outweigh any potential difficulties.
Our proposal aims to not just improve the educational standard and the physical well-being of the rickshaw puller and their families and dependents, but also socially and psychologically empower the rickshaw puller. They would be freed from their dependency on their mechanical master, the rickshaw, currently their only source of survival and also what entrenches their social immobility. Instead they would be lifted to the level of full Bangladeshi citizens, enjoying rights and benefits, providing a service and carrying responsibilities, paying taxes, and aiding the collection of a vast previously untapped revenue for their nation and its people. By empowering the rickshaw puller and also providing them with material and educational assistance, you are providing them with the opportunity to not only take pride in their work and their status, but also to change it.