DHAKA (Reuters) - Mohammad Shapan drives a rickshaw in a small town in eastern Bangladesh. But the income goes nowhere toward feeding his family, so he heads for the nation’s capital every so often in search of better money, despite the efforts of authorities to control him and thousands of others.
“The last time I came to Dhaka was ahead of the Eid,” the 25-year-old Shapan said, referring to the festival that ends the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which fell in August.
“I was happy to see my daily income rose three times. I could buy new clothes for my wife, mother and child for the Eid. It was a happy occasion for the family.”
Rickshaws far outnumber cars on the streets of many Bangladeshi towns, and they are an important source of income for the country’s poor, who often have no other options.
Yet the vehicles are a major headache for police, who struggle with licensing and safety issues for the estimated 1 million tricycle rickshaws on the road in Dhaka. Nearly half of all road accidents in the city are believed to involve them.
“The overwhelming presence of rickshaws on the streets of the capital is a growing concern as law enforcers often find it hard to take them off (streets),” said Benazir Ahmed, police commissioner of Dhaka.
“They ply, in many cases, without valid permits or are run by untrained drivers, causing accidents.”
While nearly half of all motorized cars lack proper licenses and road permits, the number of rickshaws without licenses soars to 80 percent or more.
Moreover, many of the drivers — who flock to Dhaka by the thousands from smaller cities as Shapan does, especially prior to big festivals and celebrations — lack formal driving experience or training.
The result, say both officials and users alike, is often hair-raising, but the low price makes them unavoidable.
“Every day I go to school to drop and pick up my children using rickshaws, because they are cheap and readily available,” said Munni Haque, a housewife and mother of three.
“But often I travel with my life in the hands of the drivers, who cruise through heavy traffic too fast and not at all caring for safety. This is a daily hazard poor and middle-class people have to endure.”
Still, in a land where poverty grips nearly 40 percent of Bangladesh’s 160 million people, who live on the equivalent of just S1.25 a day, there are often few other options for those who lack land or other jobs.
“We need nothing but muscle to run pedal-powered rickshaws,” a smiling Shapan said, adding that if his earnings rise he hopes to send his son to school and buy his wife a sewing machine so she can augment the family income.
Police and municipal officials say that some rickshaw pullers are as young as twelve, and are working to support their parents — at the risk of their own lives.
“Poverty is to blame,” said Wahidul Islam, an officer with a private bank.
“Many people living in the villages and urban areas are too poor to feed their families. They have no land, no work and perhaps no option but to seek a living pedaling rickshaws.”
Threats to the rickshaw drivers abound.
Besides the danger of traffic on Bangladesh’s congested and often poorly-maintained roads, they also face police crackdowns and possible confiscation of their vehicles.
At least 15,000 rickshaws seized by police have been dumped in a junkyard near a police barrack in Dhaka’s Mirpur area, with still more yards in the city and across the country. After months outside, the vehicles are often unusable, posing a huge financial burden for the drivers and the owners.
In addition, traditional human-driven rickshaws are facing a growing challenge from battery-powered auto rickshaws that can be easily charged electrically.
These vehicles, mainly made in India, are surging in popularity because they are faster and can carry six or seven people, compared to a traditional rickshaw’s three.
Despite the obstacles, the number of rickshaws in Dhaka swells to nearly 3 million ahead of festivals, increasing the number of accidents and general road chaos.
Many roads in the capital have been declared off-limit to rickshaws to ensure smooth movement of motor vehicles and safety of passengers. But sometimes rickshaws flout the ban and even enter VIP roads reserved for ministers and government officials.
“Often we are just helpless,” said police officer Saiful Huda. “We can’t allow them to violate rules, but neither can we ignore that they too need an income for survival.”
Additional reporting by Rafiqur Rahman at Reuters Television; editing by Elaine Lies