It is 6.5 kilometres from Barkat Market to Cavalry Ground. It’s a distance that a motor vehicle with average mileage capacity would complete in petrol that costs Rs15 (as per the current fuel rates). But the drive of the rickshaw I’ve just taken insists I pay Rs120 for the ride. I try to make him see reason. Eventually, we settle for a hundred bucks.
It is baffling. The very fact that we never bothered to know about the distances and costs of transportation — before we got these really smart, smartphones.
For us Lahoris, it all started with the easy taxi apps (mobile applications). By calling a cab through the apps, we have been able to understand the routes and distances as well as the cost of fuel it will take the taxi to carry us to our marked destination. The use of google maps to locate a place has also increased tremendously in the past some time.
While taxis charge a fixed amount apart from fare per kilometre, rickshaw drivers have to haggle with customers every time as there is no fixed rule by which they go. Here is what the rickshaw drivers have to say:
There is a fitness fee which the rickshaw driver has to pay every six months after which he is issued a sticker that he is supposed to display on the vehicle’s windscreen. If he doesn’t follow the rule, he can be nabbed anytime and slapped a fine.
There is a route fee as well as a tax which the rickshaws have to pay once only. “Every rickshaw has to get a book from the Route office which is in Green Town and Kala Shah Kaku. Before, the Route issuing office was at Lari Adda,” says a rickshaw driver who did not know it was the first paper he needed to step on the road. “The Transport Office needs to guide rickshaw owners rightly. In the absence of clear rules, I got my Route book in Rs8,000. I submitted Rs1,500 in bank, gave Rs500 to an RT Inspector and paid Rs6,500 fine at the Route Office. If a policeman in green uniform nabs a rickshaw for lack of route book he slams Rs1,000 fine, no less.” Many rickshaw drivers confirm this.
Every vehicle demands maintenance and rickshaw is no exception. Rickshaw tyres do not last more than one summer, given the hot sun Lahore sees in the season. This means that the rickshaw tyres must be changed every year, and since there are three of them — each costing about Rs3,000, the expenditure totals to Rs9,000.
At the Lahore Railway Station, the rickshaws are fined Rs200 if they stop for a “sawari” (passenger in vernacular) to get down. He is not allowed to pick a sawari from railway station.
There are hardly any rickshaw stands in the city so mostly the rickshaws park themselves wherever they find space, or keep running. And, with all this they have to give money home.
Ever wondered why a lot of rickshaw drivers like to engage in a conversation? Well, they drive for up to 14 hours a day, seated right atop the vehicle engine. In summers, this means sitting on an oven. A conversation, maybe, helps them to lighten up.
Often, I have come across drivers that had interesting information to give or anecdotes to tell. Sharing some of the stories here…
On a regular workday, I take a rickshaw to the office and back home. Sometimes, on my way, I see a lone girl walking quickly towards the bus stop, or there is a woman beckoning a rickshaw. My first instinct is to stop and ask them where they need to go. I want to offer them to ride along if our route is any common.
One day, when I took a rickshaw, I saw a couple, just a few steps away. They looked like they were waiting impatiently for a cab or a rickshaw. I asked the driver to stop and let me ask them where they had to go. The driver refused plainly and kept going. I was offended. He explained himself, “You will be robbed someday if you offer a ride to strangers.” He then went on to tell me how he had arrived at this conclusion.
“It was an early Sunday morning,” he continued. “I heard the door bell ring. Somebody from my neighbourhood was at the door. He said, ‘Take out your pickup, we’re moving house today.’ I told him to let me have my breakfast, but he was in big hurry. He said, ‘We can have it [the breakfast] in the new house; my treat.’ He had built a new house on Raiwind Road. We loaded all the furniture and left.
“On the road, we saw a man and a woman waving to us; they wanted us to stop. I was in no mood to offer a ride but my neighbour insisted that we did so. We had hardly travelled a few yards when the man sitting next to me pulled out a gun and pressed it against my ribs, asking me to stop the vehicle. He then got down, taking me on gunpoint. Now both me and my neighbour were on the road, Godforsaken; our pickup and all furniture gone in a matter of seconds. I had got the vehicle issued on installments which I am still paying.”
Another rickshaw driver also recently refused to stop for a girl in burqa who was walking briskly in a lane, close to our house. He too said it was not safe to take strangers, though he didn’t tell me why he had concluded the same.
I want to share my own experience with a rickshaw driver who played two different roles on two separate occasions, within five minutes of my getting in. The first time, he suddenly pulled the rickshaw along the footpath and started talking on the phone in emergency, pacifying a hungry child, telling him to cook the left-over rotis from last night in water. He was talking hurriedly, not allowing the person on the other end to talk. When he finally closed the phone, he told me his wife had died of cancer and that he had been left bankrupt, with no money to look after and feed his children. I was quite moved. So I gave him some money.
Almost a year later, I was on a rickshaw, on another route, and again the driver suddenly pulled to a side, only to start blabbering on his cell phone. “What can be done now? It’s God’s will,” he said, bemoaningly. “I’ve no money. If my daughter dies, what can I do?”
He then started explaining how she had landed in the hospital and that her treatment was too expensive for him.
That day I didn’t have more than the fare on me. When I got down from the rickshaw and turned to the driver, wanting to say I was sorry, I recognised him — he was the same fellow who had earlier told me tales about his wife’s ailment and the costly treatment blah blah blah. He looked shocked too, as our eyes met. Obviously, he had realised that he had been exposed.
There have been a number of occasions when I took a rickshaw from outside my office (the newspaper building), and the drivers wanted to know what my job was. One rickshaw driver claimed to know a colleague, another a famous journalist. Yet another said he knew the maternal family of the prime minister. They were all chatterboxes and knew the family history of these people. I was shocked almost every time.
I have learnt one important lesson for sure — do not give personal information to a stranger, particularly a rickshaw driver.