In cities across South Asia, the ubiquitous rickshaw dominates traffic-tangled streets. The three-wheeled motorized vehicle transports passengers who are otherwise left stranded by inadequate and inefficient public transportation systems. In a study conducted in Pakistan, the Global Environment Fund (GEF) found that “in the absence of adequate mass transport systems,” the rickshaw and mini-buses “carry the major share of commuter traffic.” A separate study in Bangladesh estimates that urban rickshaws account for over 30,000 passenger miles and nearly 100 ton-miles of goods movement annually.
While the auto-rickshaw fills a much-needed gap in the transportation system, the traditional two-stroke engine vehicle is well-known to be highly polluting, further exacerbating current climate change effects in South Asian cities. Urban areas in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are being severely affected by these polluting modes of transport. Yet, solutions to the problem are not as simple as just eliminating the toxic three-wheelers. Passengers, as well as the livelihoods of drivers, rely on the convenience of these vehicles. Therefore, integrating new innovations in rickshaw design, manufacturing or upgrading are essential to a pro-poor and environmentally friendly transportation policy.
The Rickshaw’s Polluting Journey
Rickshaws were introduced in South Asia in the 1960s using technology from the 1950s Italian Vespa. Today, nearly the entire vehicle is manufactured locally, costing buyers between INR 75,000 – 90,000 (US$1,660–2,000). The low-cost technology has persisted for nearly five decades and, in that time, essentially no alterations have been made to mitigate environmental impacts. The GEF describes the three-wheeler as “extremely fuel-inefficient, noisy and produces toxic exhaust emissions that are dangerous to health.”
Dhaka’s two-stroke auto-rickshaws, which number around 50,000 (number of rickshaws in Lahore is estimated to be 60,000), are responsible for 36% of the total pollution caused by all vehicles on the road, according to one article. “That means that out of PM [particulate matter] estimated as 34,733 tons per annum, the contribution by two-stroke three-wheelers comes out to be 12,504 tons per annum, which is an alarmingly high figure for a medium size but highly populated Dhaka,” says the article. In a 2007 report by India’s Central Pollution Control Board, Indian cities have a 52% critical PM 10 emission rating, due in large part to diesel and two-stroke engines. In India, the city of Surat has 50,000 rickshaws, 90% of which are two-stroke; Pune is estimated to have 60,000 rickshaws, with 90% of them with two-stroke engines; and Mumbai, where there are 150,000 rickshaws, with 50% being two-stroke.
In response to increasing air pollution, local governments across the region are taking drastic steps to remove the outdated two-stroke engines from the streets. While it is a necessary measure, the poor, who are the drivers, assemblers and repairmen, are being adversely affected by swiftly moving policies. Last year, the Government of Punjab in Pakistan, as part of its recent efforts to combat air pollution, imposed a ban on the manufacturing of two-stroke rickshaws, as well as phasing out those that are already on the roads. A study on the ban found that “there was almost a complete consensus on the need to impose the ban, but the strategy followed by the stakeholders including Government of the Punjab was extensively criticized and challenged by the affectees that included rickshaw drivers, two-stroke rickshaw manufacturers, rickshaw dealers and others.”
Rickshaw drivers were particularly opposed to the government’s approach. The rickshaw drivers are often the poorest of the working poor, largely illiterate and with large households, averaging 4-6 family members. Lacking the financial means to purchase a rickshaw of their own, they often rent the rickshaw for a portion of the day, amounting to an average of two drivers per rickshaw. Accounting for this, the Rickshaw Dealers Association of Pakistan took the view that “banning of two-stroke has not only affected 120,000 rickshaw drivers but has affected indirectly 1,200,000 souls that are indirectly associated with the rickshaw business.” In Bangladesh, one study estimated that nearly 3 million people in Dhaka alone rely on rickshaw income—either directly as drivers, repairmen, etc., or indirectly, as family members of drivers.
Where the Lahore Ban Went Wrong
The Government of Punjab imposed a widespread ban on rickshaws in Lahore under pressure from the Supreme Court to reduce high levels of air pollution. The goal was to scrap all 60,000 two-stroke versions and bring an upgraded four-stroke—a much cleaner vehicle—to the streets of Lahore. However, public criticism escalated when barely 300 new versions were introduced onto the roads. The hastened timeline to meet the Supreme Court’s demand—or to be held in contempt of court—meant that there was little time to assist the manufacturing industry in switching to the four-stroke three-wheelers or to give rickshaw drivers time to find alternate incomes. Further indication that the Government’s policy lacked equitability is the financial component. The Bank of Punjab stopped issuing loans for rickshaws “on the basis that newly manufactured so called four-stroke CNG rickshaws have totally failed on the road.” Without a loan, purchasing a new rickshaw is essentially impossible. If a rickshaw was purchased, replacing spare parts on the new vehicle would be much more expensive than the old version. A clutch wire went from INR 5 (US$0.10) to INR 250 (US$5.50) in the four-stroke, while an engine overhaul went from INR 600-700 (US$13-15) to INR 5,000-6,000 (US$110-135).
Sustainable, Equitable Transportation Policies
As governments across South Asia begin to more strategically incorporate environmental issues into transportation policy, they also should to be aware of how these policies impact the poor in particular. “Changes in transport policy should emphasize access and equity. They should seek to achieve poverty reduction by decreasing spending on transport and by increasing jobs…They should reduce dependence on fuel (both imported and natural gas), and improve the mobility of the majority,” write Debra Efroymson and Maruf Rahman in a report, “Transportation Policy for Poverty Reduction and Social Equity.”
A number of initiatives have been launched around South Asia to begin turning over the old, toxic rickshaw fleet while also reducing harmful CO2 emissions. These have the potential to fulfill the criteria of equitable and sustainable transport options, if the government appropriately phases in the new products, trains drivers, and promote local manufacturing to keep costs low for initial production as well as for parts and repair.
New Innovations in Rickshaw Design
In Delhi last year, the world’s attention turned to the capital city for the opening of the Commonwealth Games. With this momentum, new initiatives to advance the rickshaw were introduced to the Old City’s streets. Soleckshaw, a state-of-the-art solar powered rickshaw, was piloted by the Indian Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Costing INR 17,000 (US$378) each, the rickshaws “sought to give rickshaw drivers a boost with a specially designed battery-powered electric motor.” Project goals include promoting both economic development and zero-emissions transportation “for job growth and environmental benefit,” said an article in Wired.
Around the same time, the e-rick was also introduced to Delhi streets, which is described as a “hybrid between an auto rickshaw and cycle rickshaw.” The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which launched the “battery-powered, eco-friendly” rickshaws program, has high hopes for its future. A city official was quoted in India TV News as saying: ‘‘We hope to replace all rickshaws plying in the city with the new e-ricks. There are a total of 99,000 licensed rickshaws in Delhi.’’ The MCD has partnered with a private firm for the initiative, which will own, operate and maintain the rickshaws. The company will hire the current rickshaw pullers and, importantly, will give them a monthly salary of INR 4000-5,000 (US$90-110), as well as medical insurance.
A model in the Philippines may also serve as a learning tool for South Asia. An ABD-funded electric-tricycle program has received widespread praise. The e-trikes look like a space-age version of the traditional auto-rickshaw and run on lithium ion batteries, instead of heavier and environmentally-unfriendly lead acid batteries used in earlier e-trike models. The proposed project with the Government of the Philippines and other development partners will provide 20,000 e-trikes, saving 100,000 liters of foreign fuel imports each day, with an annual cost saving of US$35 million. E-trike owners will also feel a direct savings since the daily cost to recharge the lithium batteries is PHP 30 (US$0.66) versus petroleum-fueled trikes, which averages a cost of PHP 230 (US$5). Factoring in electricity required for charging the batteries, e-trikes will contribute less than one-quarter of the CO2 emitted by petroleum-fueled trikes.
Roads of the Future
The traditional three-wheeled rickshaw is a quintessential part of South Asian streets. However, it is unquestionable that pollution from the dominating two-stroke fuel version is severely damaging the health and well-being of city dwellers. Governments do need to act hastily in combating damaging levels of air pollution from these three-wheelers, yet, as was demonstrated in Lahore, upgrading rickshaws involves many more livelihoods than would be involved in a traditional public transportation system. And, unlike train or bus systems, purchasing (or rental fees) as well as some maintenance costs—depending on whether the rickshaw is rented or owned—fall on the individual driver, who makes an average of INR 180 (US$4) a day in Mumbai, for example. Transportation departments around South Asia have the potential to be innovative and set a worldwide example with upgrading the two-stroke rickshaws. Clean models such as the solar or battery-powered rickshaws that have been piloted in Delhi and other parts of Asia would set a great model for 21st century transport, and with new financing mechanisms, training and manufacturing investments, have the potential to significantly improve the air quality while also delivering the working poor the possibility to be integrated into the plan for a greener future.
The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.