Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Calcutta's Hand-Pulled Rickshaws: Cultural Politics and Place Making in a Globalizing City

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Calcutta's Hand-Pulled Rickshaws: Cultural Politics and Place Making in a Globalizing City

Article excerpt

In the heart of Calcutta, shoppers, scooters, taxis, and cars jostle for space.' Amid blaring horns, hawkers selling their wares, and throngs of pedestrians, the rickshaw wallah (puller) sits calmly in his vehicle. Soon an old man with a walking stick in hand approaches and asks for a ride. An unspoken language commences between the rickshaw wallah and his passenger. The rickshaw wallah takes the walking stick from the old man and helps him alight the rickshaw--no bargaining for a fare, no need to specify a destination, just an understanding between the passenger and the puller.2 It is an understanding based on a well-established relationship built on familiarity, trust, and dependability. The hand-pulled rickshaws of Calcutta constitute the last remaining pedestrian form of transportation (in a sizable fleet) in existence in the world today.

As a service enterprise, rickshaw pulling operates within the informal economy. Across the developing world, informal activities boost household and national earnings and absorb a significant portion of the labor force--perhaps as much as 30 percent in Latin America, 59 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 54 percent in Indonesia (Bartlett 1990). Informal economies can contribute significantly to a country's gross domestic product (GDP). For example, Cambodia's informal economy contributes to 62 percent of the country's GDP (Kawakami and others 2011). In India, out of a total labor force of 399 million, in excess of 370 million (93 percent) people are likely engaged in the informal economy, which contributes to about 6o percent of India's net domestic product (Sakthivel and Joddar 2006; Kulshreshtha 2011). Estimates suggest that 40 to 50 percent of Calcutta's labor force works in informal enterprises (Chakravorty 2000; CSAAI 2003).

Research on informal economies now spans developing and developed countries, as well as many social science disciplines. Numerous studies have addressed the evolution, operation, regulation, and impacts of informal trades and professions in Latin America (R. Bromley 1978; Bartlett 1990; Portes and Schauffler 1993; Jones. and Varley 1994; R. D. F. Bromley 1998), Africa (Amponsah and others 1994; Grieco, Turner, and Kwakye 1995; King 2001; Tambulasi and Kayuni 2008), and East and South Asia (Breman 1983; Shaw 1985; Kulshreshtha and Singh 2001; Huang 2009). Significantly, other scholars have extended this discussion to show how the construction of gendered spaces influences social relationships, work, and feminist politics in the informal economy (M. Wright 1998; Ong 1991; Pratt 2004).

Geographers have also contributed to this scholarship in noteworthy ways. Rosemary Bromley's research yielded important insights into the expansion of the informal economy, especially in a Latin American context, and drew attention to "the neglected spatial dimension of informal commerce" (1998, 245). Her 1998 study of street traders in Quito, for example, showed that their presence in the historic city center diverged from the image of the city held by municipal officials and others interested in promoting the city center as a tourist destination. Other geographers, including John Whitelegg and Nick Williams, have demonstrated the utility of rickshaws from a transportation and sustainability perspective (Whitelegg 1997; Whitelegg and Williams 2000).

Our study of rickshaw wallahs aims to extend this geographical scholarship. Like Rosemary Bromley (1998), we focus on the informal economy as a site of cultural struggle, but in doing so we position our study at the juncture of cultural politics and urban policy in the context of a globalizing city. "Cultural politics" refers to the ways in which different groups and individuals construct, alter, deploy, and contest cultural meanings and representations in order to advance specific interests, often to gain power or alter the social constellations of power. We share Susan Wright's view that "culture" might best be defined "as a contested process of meaning-making" (1998, 9). …

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