Against the Odds
Patuakhali Rickshaw Pullers' Incredible Resistance
Morshed Ali Khan
Imagine a pristine small town surrounded by three rivers, water of which is as clean as its air. It is Patuakhali, about 270 kilometers south of the capital Dhaka. And it is in Patuakhali that incredibly 7,000 rickshaw pullers are fighting a fierce battle with the authorities. The rickshaw pullers of Patuakhali have so far kept the enemy at bay. They are resisting intrusion of commercial mechanised vehicles inside the 26 square kilometers of the municipality area that was created over 107 years ago on April 1, 1892 by the British Raj.
The impromptu call for resistance from this poor community was triggered when the Mayor of Patuakhali Mostak Ahmed in a memo in 2008 allowed one of the noisiest and most polluting vehicles --- tempos-- to carry passengers within the municipality area for a fixed price. The permission was itself an illegal step by the mayor as it defied an official ban on tempos imposed by the Bangaldesh Road Transport Authority and the Department of Environment.
General people wholeheartedly support the idea of motor-free Patuakhali, says Sohrab Hossain a local journalist, as in no way do the people want to see their quiet township become a ghastly place like Dhaka where unbearable noise and air pollution mingle with perennial traffic jams. Patuakhali is small and people cope well with rickshaws for transport. All the authorities should try to do is to find a way to restrict pullers from overcharging, Sohrab says.
" Patuakhali has no industries for poor people like us to make a living from. Pulling rickshaw is the only means of livelihood for us. We shall resist any move to ruin our lives," says General Secretary of the district rickshaw pullers' union Jamal Sardar.
Jamal's determination was firmly echoed by every rickshaw puller, rickshaw van and rickshaw owners' association of this township. Moreover, thousands of dependants of this community are also ready to join the fight.
The Patuakhali district rickshaw pullers' association in a letter to the mayor and the district administration recently threatened to go into action. They said if the authorities did not take immediate steps to ban tempos, noshimons, bhot bhotis (all three are made locally with mounted shallow engines) and motor bikes without documents, they would go into a week-long strike and paralyse the municipality area.
"We have met the mayor, who agreed to keep the municipality area free from mechanised commercial vehicles but did not do anything ever since to stop it officially," says Abdul Aziz Howlader, President of the Rickshaw Pullers' Association.
Unofficially however the united rickshaw pullers of Patuakhali have kept the fleet of polluters at bay so far.
At the town centre the municipality's Rickshaw Branch officials expressed their utter disappointment at the audacity of the rickshaw pullers.
"These rickshaw pullers must be kicked out of the town," continues an angry official, "they charge twice the fixed amount for fares and then randomly refuse to take passengers to their destinations."
The two-time elected Mayor of Patuakhali, Mostak Ahmed however shows sympathy towards this neglected workforce in his jurisdiction and promises to do all he could for their demand.
"We are very dependant on the district administration for anything we want to do. But let me tell you I shall try my best to keep Patuakhali free from motorised commercial vehicles," he says.
Rickshaw pullers have a different story behind the 'conspiracy' to oust them. A puller says a local Awami League leader has just imported two dozens of human-haulers from China and India, which have to be introduced in Patuakhali as soon as possible.
"But we will keep resisting till the end," he concludes with a firm tone.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010