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Driving away 'inhumane' rickshaws

From Satinder Bindra, CNN New Delhi Bureau Chief

NGO reports say millions of Kolkata residents are pavement or slum dwellers who need jobs.
NGO reports say millions of Kolkata residents are pavement or slum dwellers who need jobs.

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KOLKATA, India (CNN) -- He pulls his load 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, in searing heat.

Nandu Pandit weighs just 50 kilograms (about 110 pounds) and cannot even afford shoes, but he pulls people in his rickshaw three times his weight.

"I feel hot and thirsty. Instead of pulling my load, I think of laying down," he said.

But poverty requires Pandit to keep pulling. His backbreaking labor nets him $2 a day.

The eastern Indian city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is one of the last places on Earth where the hand-pulled vehicles are still used for transporting humans.

Rickshaws were introduced to the city by Chinese traders in the 19th century and popularized by the British rulers in the early 20th century.

Officials estimate there are now 70,000 of them in Kolkata, but the number should soon come down drastically.

The city's mayor has banned rickshaw from many streets and is now trying to abolish what he calls "an inhumane and feudal practice" immediately.

"A man pulling another is not the symbol of a civilized society," Mayor Subroto Mukherhee said.

So, why do people patronize such a trade?

"I can't afford a taxi for a short distance. This is convenient," one passenger told CNN.

Besides the pollution-free convenience, Pandit says in a city where three million people are homeless, rickshaws provide jobs.

So too does prostitution, says the mayor. "And no one in this city would dream of legalizing that," he said.

"I can't only think about unemployment. I also have to think of building a city of international standards."

If that is the case, the mayor's critics say they want him to abolish other forms of hard labor too. The mayor's response -- that's next.

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