Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Driving with Dignity

I have spent the last few weeks working on a project with my organisation looking at the social status and dignity of rickshaw pullers. I’ve been surprisingly busy, and hence have not managed to update this for a while. But perhaps this can be a little insight into the work we are doing.

Rickshaws are ubiquitous in Bangladesh: they crowd the roads pulling two or three passengers, fridges, plastic flowers, food (alive and dead) and anything else that can be crammed on the small plastic covered seats. Rickshaws are found all over south and south-east Asia, in many different forms, but it is in Bangladesh that they really go overboard. New rickshaws are covered in garish decorations, streamers, bells and paintings of mosques, lilies, actors, tigers and futuristic cities. They then fill the cities and villages, being the main mode of transport – 57% of all journeys in Bangladesh are on a rickshaw. Rickshaw pulling represents 6% of national GDP, 14 million people (10% of the total population) rely on it directly or indirectly for their livelihoods, and there are 800,000 pullers in Dhaka alone. It is at the economic, cultural and social heart of Bangladesh.

However, rickshaw pullers have some of the lowest social status going. No one wants to be a rickshaw puller: they are beaten by the police, cheated by passengers, abused by other road users, robbed, insulted and generally ignored. There is a real dichotomy between their cultural and economic importance and their social status and public attitudes towards them. So we have devised a small advocacy project designed to target social attitudes towards rickshaw pullers and directly empower pullers to access policy makers and the public in general to demand their rights – that to dignified, respected work.

To do this we have worked with ten pullers who live in garages across the slums of the city. Rickshaw pullers do not own their rickshaws but rent them from local mahajan (strong men) at about 50 Taka a day. The garages are owned by the mahajan, and consist of a small bamboo scaffold with a platform on top, on which the pullers sleep. Often these stick out over swamps or are next to filth-filled pools. In general, conditions are miserable. However, most people in Bangladesh do not know how the pullers live.

Our project has been to take case studies with the different pullers, and match this with photographs of them, their work and lives, and to exhibit this at an exhibition attended by diplomats, development workers and so on. In addition, we have asked pullers to take their own photographs to reflect their ideas of dignity and their social status, which we also plan to exhibit. The pullers will go to the exhibition and talk to visitors. This gives them access to a space that they normally cannot enter, and dialogue with people that never talk to them.

We are also producing (funding pending) a photograph book giving the photographs, case studies, some articles on rickshaw pullers and a brief history to try to expand the scope of the work and to widen the impact.

The exhibition will (hopefully) be held in Dhaka in May, and the book also be produced by that time.

The advantage for my placement is that I can use this as a method of teaching participatory research methods, project planning, dealing with donors, getting funding proposals completed, media and communications strategies, writing newspaper articles and academic journal articles. It should help meet a great many of my objectives for my job and will expose my organisation to the wider development community in Bangladesh.

There should be a tangible impact on the rickshaw pullers we work with as well, as they will actually get a voice to use, whereas normally they are kept silent. Some of their stories are incredible, and when they are all finished we will but them up on a website. One man is 75 and has pulled a rickshaw for 40 years. He spent 5 years in prison for participation in a murder, though he says he did not do it. Another is 12 a year old boy. Yet another has had five rickshaws stolen for him and been beaten by the police. There are some tragic and some funny tales that have come out, and with a bit of luck it will greatly change perceptions of rickshaw pullers, or at least their own perceptions of themselves.

And when the book is ready, you can all buy one.