As I leave the Aligarh Junction Railway Station I hear high-pitched cries of ‘Medical’, ‘Kathpula’, ‘Chungi’ and the names of a couple of other places in the city. Around 20 e-rickshaw drivers are calling out to get the maximum number of passengers into their e-rickshaws before driving off to the destination.

Amidst them is a lone manually-pedalled rickshaw, with the puller looking visibly disappointed. He says he has been waiting for a passenger to hire him for over an hour. But no luck. He is one of over 2,000 manual rickshaw pullers whose life has been severely affected by the advent of e-rickshaws.

“Till five to six years back, the public transport system in Aligarh was dominated by the manual rickshaw. I used to earn 300 to 400 per day earlier. Now it is down to 100 or 150” says Zakir Husain, who has worked as a rickshaw puller for the past 18-19 years but is now thinking of changing his profession.

E-rickshaws in Aligarh operate on a shared basis. They charge Rs.10 to 15 per passenger and can carry four people. Their drivers however, often accommodate 5 or even 6 passengers at a time.

Manual rickshaws on the other hand have a carrying capacity of two, or at most three. Moreover they are reserved by the first passenger who hires them, and must therefore charge a higher fare than e-rickshaws. They are also much slower than e-rickshaws, which run at a speed of 15-25 km per hour.

Slowly pedalling his rickshaw and looking side to side for a passenger is Ram Chand, over 60 years old. He has been a rickshaw puller for the past 25 years. Recalling the time before e-rickshaws came into the picture he says, “I used to earn around 500 a day then. Now earning even 200 is very difficult.”

Chand hails from a village in the outskirts of Aligarh. “My wife died and my daughter got married. Now I have to earn as well as take care of myself.” As I take his leave, he pleads with me to help him get a pension.

A rickshaw puller standing outside a banquet hall waiting for someone to hire him

Similar is the case of Jagdish, who has been in the profession for the past 15 years. He manages to earn around Rs.200 to 250 a day, compared to the 400 he used to earn before e-rickshaws hit the roads of Aligarh, and also hit his livelihood.

Jagdish pays Rs.40 a day to the owner of the rickshaw which he hires every day on rent. When asked why he hasn’t shifted to e-rickshaws he replies, “Tiddi chalani nahi aati” – I don’t know how to drive tiddis, which is how e-rickshaws are commonly known in the city.

Rickshaw pullers are not the only stakeholders at a loss in the e-rickshaw revolution. There are others as well. Bhalle manufactures the base of manually pedalled rickshaws. His business has almost died out. “Five years back, I had a monthly sale of 20-25 bases” he says, pointing at one of the bases he has ready for sale. “But now I am able to sell barely two or three. There are no buyers for manual rickshaws.”

Shahid, a roadside rickshaw mechanic, has a similar story to tell. “I used to assemble newly manufactured rickshaws. But see now where I am” he says, showing me the currency notes he has in his pocket, adding up to eighty rupees – his day’s earnings.

And it is afternoon already. Looking at an e-rickshaw passing by he adds, “Jab se tiddi aayi hai, dhanda choupat ho gaya hai” (Since the tiddi arrived, business has collapsed). The number of pedalled rickshaws has gone down drastically, so very few rickshaw pullers come to him for repair.

E-rickshaws waiting in line outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital

Keenly listening to the conversation is Babu Khan, who was a rickshaw puller for 27 years before changing his profession. He says he served as the publicity in-charge of the Rickshaw Chalak Mazdoor Kaliyan Samiti, a union of rickshaw pullers in Aligarh.

Blaming the government for permitting e-rickshaws to operate he says, “Tiddi chalwa kar sarkar ne mazdoor ke pet par bohot zabardast laat maari hai” (By permitting e-rickshaws the government dealt a huge kick to the stomachs of labourers).

He also refers to the UP government’s scheme of distributing free e-rickshaws. The UP government distributed e-rickshaws free of cost to several households between 2015 and 2017.

When asked if the rickshaw pullers’ union had taken the case of rickshaw pullers to the District Administration, Khan replies that he is no longer in it.

“Earlier the Union had support and power, but it no longer enjoys that position in the city. Agar I.G.Khan zinda hote, to ye tiddi kab ka band ho chuki hoti” (Had I.G.Khan been alive, the e-rickshaws would have disappeared long before) he adds firmly, referring to Dr Iqbal Ghani Khan.

Dr Khan was Reader in History at the Centre for Advanced Study of the Aligarh Muslim University. He served as President of the Rickshaw Chalak Mazdoor Kaliyan Samiti for several years till he was brutally murdered in February 2003.

The rickshaw pullers here recall his tenure as one in which the authorities fulfilled their demands. Citing an example, Babu Khan says “Similar battery operated rickshaws came back in the year 2000 as well. But under I.G.Khan we protested and limited its route.”

A memorial for Dr Iqbal Ghani Khan built by the Aligarh Municipal Corporation at a roundabout in the Lal Diggi area. The roundabout has been renamed I.G.Khan Circle in his honour

Currently the city has two rickshaw pullers’ unions, the Rickshaw Chalak Mazdoor Kaliyan Samiti and the Janwadi Rickshaw Chalak Union. The latter was founded by Dr Khan. The unions have both manually-pedalled rickshaw pullers and e-rickshaw drivers as members.

Madiur Rehman, president of the Rickshaw Chalak Mazdoor Kaliyan Samiti, agrees that rickshaw pullers are facing an existential crisis. But he sees this as inevitable. “The e-rickshaw had to come” he insists, citing the increasing population and expansion of the city as the two basic reasons.

“A pedalled rickshaw accommodates two people, and there were around 15,000 of them four to five years back. They weren’t sufficient for public transport, in terms of availability or cost effectiveness. Currently Aligarh has around 20,000 e-rickshaws and 2,500 manual rickshaws,” Rehman estimates.

“The second reason is the rate at which city has been expanding. Manual rickshaws are slow and as the distances to be traversed increase, new modes of transport are a necessity,” he says.

Asked if the Union has approached the district authorities taking up the cause of rickshaw pullers, Rehman said that the best they can do is to ensure that rickshaw pullers are given benefits in government schemes meant for low-income groups.

He believes the problems faced by rickshaw pullers are “natural” in any transition phase. “Manually pedalled rickshaw have to end. Sooner or later, even they have to shift to e-rickshaws.”