This 80-year-old grandfather has been hand pulling rickshaws and passengers around one of India’s most congested cities all his life.

Mohammad Hashim waits for a customer outside a shop in Kolkata, India. © Cover Asia Press/Tanzeel Ur Rehman

Mohammad Hashim is one of 20,000 men dragging people on wheels through the congested lanes of Kolkata, in West Bengal, India, for just Rs 60 (60p) a day.

80 year old rickshaw puller Mohammad Hashim. © Cover Asia Press/Tanzeel Ur Rehman

During the sweltering summers and harsh winters, these rickshaw pullers also known as ‘Ricky Babas’ can often be seen barefoot even.

Tana rickshaw puller making his way with passengers. © Cover Asia Press/Tanzeel Ur Rehman

Hashim, who refuses to retire, said: ‘Shoes take away the speed. I’ve never worn a shoe while I pull no matter how hot or cold a day it is. I have always dragged the rickshaw barefoot. I might be old but I still have the stamina to carry a load of two adults. I’ll pull a rickshaw till my last breath.’

Rickshaw puller looks for passengers in Kolkata. © Cover Asia Press/ Tanzeel Ur Rehman

Many human rights activists have termed the occupation inhumane and have demanded the government withdraw the rickshaws.

Close up of a tana rickshaw puller’s feet and the ground he walks on. © Cover Asia Press/Tanzeel Ur Rehman

But the pullers, who often choose to follow their ancestor’s footsteps, disagree.  Mohammed Sayedda, 76 said:

‘I do not have skills for any other work. What will I do if these rickshaws are banned?’

Another puller Sheikh Saffrullah, 55, added: ‘This is an age-old tradition and we’re keeping it alive. I’ve been hand-pulling rickshaws for 15 years. If the government ban them will they give us another job? Will they provide us pedal rickshaws? I don’t think so. I have no faith in the government. There are nearly 20,000 pullers in this city and if these rickshaws are banned, we’ll all be left jobless.’

Close up of tana rickshaw puller Sheikh Safarullah’s feet. © Cover Asia Press/Tanzeel Ur Rehman
Traditional tingling bell used by rickshaw pullers to make way through the streets. © Cover Asia Press/Tanzeel Ur Rehman

The rickshaw pullers make just Rs 60 a day for twelve hours hard work and half of that they have to pay to rent the rickshaws from owners.

Rickshaw puller walking barefoot on a rainy day through Kolkata, India. © Cover Asia Press/Tanzeel Ur Rehman

‘We rent these rickshaws for Rs 30 a day, no matter how much we make. But it’s not as expensive as the bicycle rickshaws – one of those is a hefty Rs 50 a day,’ said 46-year-old Mohammad Israil, who’s been hand-pulling rickshaws for thirty years. ‘This is not a dignified job but we have no choice. We need to make money and this is the only job we can do. We’re born to pull Tana rickshaws.’

Tana rickshaw puller making his way through the streets of Kolkata, India. © Cover Asia Press/Tanzeel Ur Rehman

The Mayor of Kolkata, Sovan Chatterjee, has admitted Tana rickshaws have serious consequences on the health of these men, but he ruled out the possibility of banning them altogether.

‘We’ve stopped issuing new licenses but those who have an existing license can continue as normal.’

Tana rickshaws or hand-pulled rickshaw were first introduced in Kolkata – the former capital of British-ruled India – in the late 19th century by Chinese traders primarily to carry goods. But British rulers made them the cheap mode of transport in 1919. And decades later Tana rickshaws are still used on every corner of the city.