The good old rickshaw is as much a part of India as is curry, and they are a feature of every city, town and village.
They are so ubiquitous in India that I began wondering whether they were, in fact, an Indian invention?
There are many theories as to where they came from, but the most widely accepted theory has them being invented in Japan (It is a Japanese word – jinrikisha. jin = human, riki = power or force, sha = vehicle). Their invention in 1869 in Japan is credited to a chap called Izumi Yosuke. He entered into a partnership for the manufacture of his new human-powered carriages with a man named Suzuki Tokujiro. That’s right! The very first commercially made rickshaw in the world was a Suzuki!
The first rickshaws were introduced to India by the Brits in 1880 in Shimla, the summer capital, and the first commercially employed rickshaws appeared in Calcutta.
After the war and the rise in efficiency of the internal combustion engine, human powered vehicles declined in popularity and in India today human drawn rickshaws (one of the hardest jobs on earth I imagine – especially in that heat!) are only found in Calcutta. Predictably, human rights advocates want to ban them as being exploitative, but the rickshaw pullers themselves say this will push their families into starvation, and they point out that they are the only transport that does not get put out of action by the knee deep monsoon in West Bengal!
The auto-rickshaw, the black and yellow workhorse of the cities and towns (black and green in some places, like Delhi), the ones we all love and hate, actually defy counting! I have spent time trying to google multiple variants of ’how many auto rickshaws are there in India?’ and there is simply no answer! Try it!
I CAN tell you that there are 1.5 million electric ones (this is great news!), and I can tell you that there are 11000 new electric ones bought monthly, but nobody, not even Google, knows how many there are in all of India!
Auto-rickshaws are everywhere and you will seldom have trouble hailing one. They are meant to be metered, and in big cities like Delhi, they generally are but if you hail one that has no meter, be sure to negotiate the price with the driver before you get in.
The auto rickshaw is not great for long distances, so have a rough idea of how far your destination is before you hail one. They can offer quite a bumpy ride and they are open sided and at the exact same height as the exhaust pipe on a bus! Many years ago on my first visit to India before I moved here, I was in Udaipur and needed to get to the airport. I asked my local rickshaw wallah how far the airport was and he assured me ‘10 minutes’. One hour and 40 km later, with steam blowing out of my ears, we arrived at the airport!
Autos are a great way of seeing a city. They’re generally less expensive than taxis and unlike buses, they take you to the doorstep of your destination. They are great in heavy traffic where they manage to effortlessly wiggle their way through traffic and get out of seemingly impossible jams. Though the auto wallah’s driving skills may seem suspect to you, they do know the roads and the traffic…and they drive it as they deem fit. Millions of Indian’s use rickshaws daily so they can’t be that bad.
The drivers are generally affable guys and they know where everything in their city is. They can be very entertaining guides to show you around, rather like cockney cabbies Indian style, provided they can speak English, which in the bigger cities they mostly (buy not always) will be able to do. As a rule one never tips an auto driver and this should be adhered to say the locals, so as not to corrupt the market, but when a guy has been a good sport and made an effort showing me around I always give him a little extra.
These trusty three wheelers have always been called auto rickshaws in India, as the natural replacement for the human drawn rickshaw, however these days more and more drivers have embraced the name “Tuk Tuk”, used throughout Southeast Asia and which is just the most onomatopoetic name. Either way, when you use the word “auto” or “rickshaw” or “tuk tuk”, everyone in India knows what you mean.