My son and I flagged down a bicycle rickshaw for our journey home tonight. As I stepped onto the rickshaw, I noticed it was brand spankin' new -- cardboard and plastic still wrapped much of the cycle's tubing. After the many hundreds, perhaps thousands of rickshaw rides I've taken in India, not once have I ever ridden on a brand new one. So I said to Gopal, "Vah, your rickshaw is absolutely fantastic!" He smiled and said, "No Sahib, this one is already a month and a half old. Its simply okay."
As we were cruising home, Gopal was totally cranking -- I've never seen someone pull a rickshaw this fast. It was obvious something was different about Gopal. It turns out, Gopal owns 14 rickshaws; he himself rides 7 days a week, 18 hours a day -- from pre-dawn, through the searing summer heat, and late into the night. He keeps a brand new rickshaw for himself, once it gets a little old, he adds it to his collection of rentals. According to Gopal, the average Chandigarh rikshawala will earn between 2500 and 5000 rupees a month (that's between 58 and 116$US). Gopal makes about 900 rupees per month on each rickshaw he rents out. A brand new rickshaw costs 9000 rupees. Now according to Gopal, each rented rickshaw comes with significant overhead, there's the occasional worn out tire, a broken chain, and other bike maintenance related problems, but his biggest expense has more to do with his riders, who can require a fair amount of money for things like a marriage (for their daughters), a funeral, medical bills, etc. So all in all, Gopal says he grosses about 15000 rupees a month, and after all his expenses, pulls home around 11000. I asked him how he manages 13 other rikshawalas. Gopal says he has a cell phone in his pocket, they call him if there are any problems. All his riders return their bikes to him at the end of the day, where they all sleep on their rickshaws together. He said he has no problems with the government and hence no need to pay any bribes. There is a one time license fee of 500 rupees per bicycle. I also asked if he had any problems with riders running off with his bikes. He said no, he has all their paperwork in order, they have to sign for the bikes, and he learns all their family history before hand. I asked Gopal why he doesn't upgrade to an auto-rickshaw. He laughed and said, "Never. That is the worst business ever. For them it is just a status symbol, that they don't have to work hard like us." Apparently autos have many maintenance expenses, petrol expenses, license fees, taxes, penalties (tickets for things like too many passengers, traffic violations, etc.), money for bribes and more. Gopal says his business is good, hard work for sure, but good.
I asked him where his wife and kids are. He says he owns a house in Delhi, has 3 kids, 1 of marriageable age. His daughter's marriage will cost him 1.5 to 2 lakhs (3500$US to 4650$US). He has 3 rickshaws running in Delhi, he visits once a month or so, otherwise he sleeps on his bike, and keeps growing his business.
I must say, I was totally blown away by my conversation with Gopal. Before Gopal, like most others, I thought of rikshawalas as men to feel sorry for, men with few options, no education, and little money. While 11000 rupees per month doesn't sound like much to a westerner ( a mere 256$US) its almost twice as much as a teacher makes here, and more than 6 times what a farm laborer makes. And most importantly, Gopal's income is growing. I asked how many more rickshaws he thinks he could handle. He felt he could double the number without many problems. I asked how many rikshawalas are entrepreneurs like him -- he kept peddling, and just laughed.