By Alia Dharssi
Farida Begum’s face lights up as she talks about the day, four years ago, when she and her husband brought home a cycle rickshaw. To celebrate, they shared sweets with neighbours in their community on the southern outskirts of Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
“We felt very happy – I finally owned something,” says Begum, 40, sitting on a mat on the cement floor of her family’s two-room apartment.
It was a turning point for Begum. Married at 11, she and her husband, an illiterate farmer, had relied on handouts from their parents for more than two decades. In 2007, they moved to Lucknow with their three daughters and her husband started driving a rickshaw. However, daily rental fees of 40 rupees (50p) reduced his earnings, and the family didn’t have enough to eat.
Farida Begum sorts goods at a stall she recently opened. The family’s finances have improved since she took out a loan to buy a cycle rickshaw with her husband. Photograph: Alia Dharssi
When Begum heard about Rickshaw Sangh, a microcredit programme for rickshaw drivers and theirwives, she leapt at the opportunity to take part. Run by the American India Foundation (AIF) with local banks and microcredit agencies, the scheme has helped more than 100,000 rickshaw drivers in India to buy the tricycle-like vehicles since 2001, and has been hailed by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, as a model for extending credit to the poor.
However, it’s not the drivers whom the AIF staff prefer to do business with – it’s their wives. Staff say the scheme gives women a chance to take charge of the purse strings at home, and that they are better than their husbands at repaying debts.
In Begum’s case, she says the microcredit programme has helped to transform her relationship with her husband. “He started respecting me. He used to get frustrated by our difficult situation and would even beat me. But now, even when I speak angrily to him, he doesn’t say a word.”
No one knows exactly how many rickshaw drivers work in India, though 10 million have registered with the authorities, according to the AIF. Most are illiterate and from marginalised communities, with many relying on the rickshaw trade seasonally, when there’s no work in their village, says Ashima Sood, an economist at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research in Hyderabad.
Since any gains can be wiped out by ill health or an accident, “you have to be very young and strong to be able to really support yourself”, says Sood.
Even after years of hauling passengers and goods around India’s busy cities, often in searing heat, most cannot afford to buy their own vehicle. Rickshaw Sangh focuses on full-time drivers, rather than seasonal ones, because they can ply their rickshaws to repay the bank loan, which is guaranteed by the AIF.
Under the scheme, drivers receive a rickshaw and uniform, as well as a municipal permit, insuranceand maintenance services for the loan period. In Lucknow, the package costs £150 for passenger rickshaws and £115 for trolleys that transport goods.
Wives – and occasionally mothers – get together in groups of three or more, and they are then jointly liable for the loans. These are repaid in weekly instalments with 26% interest, a slightly higher cost than if they were renting the rickshaws. The women help one another with payments if times are particularly hard.
“[Men] think that lottery or gambling might give them a miracle and make them rich, but the women in their families are saving. They are careful,” says Vijay Pandey, managing director of Bhartiya Micro Credit, a company based in Lucknow that works with Rickshaw Sangh.
In a shanty town in northern Lucknow, one rickshaw driver’s wife talks about the benefits of the programme. “Everyone gives money to me – my two brothers-in-law, my father-in-law, all of them,” says Sita Devi, 19, who bought a trolley rickshaw with her husband.
However, in addition to high interest rates, there may be drawbacks to the scheme, according to Sanghmitra Acharya, a social scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who studied Rickshaw Sangh in 2012. “Sometimes such arrangements spark domestic violence by creating contempt among the men [towards their wives],” she says.
Rickshaw driver Muhammed Mushir says his daily income increased by between £1.80 and £3 a day after he and his wife bought a rickshaw in 2012. When he was renting a similar vehicle, he says, he could only afford a cup of tea for breakfast. “The owner would ask for money and say, ‘Eat later, pay me first’,” says Mushir, who has been driving rickshaws for 20 years.
His wife, Mohammed Nazo, adds, “Now we have some food stored in our house.” She points to two sacks of grain in one corner of their home.
Some drivers complain about losing business to app-based taxi services and battery-powered e-rickshaws. Rickshaw Sangh does offer electric rickshaws, but they cost about 10 times more than traditional vehicles and require special training to operate.
For now, the AIF is focusing on extending its traditional rickshaw programme to reach millions of drivers by 2019, says Nishant Pandey, its India country director. “The theory of change is that, when they have higher incomes, they will make good rational decisions as parents to invest in their children’s education and future.”
Since paying off her loan, Begum has combined her family’s savings with another loan to open a street stall where she sells snacks and household goods. She and her husband are saving for their daughters’ college education.
“My children are happy. They are studying,” says Begum, who did not finish her secondary schooling. “I do not want my daughters to face the same hardships I have faced in my life.”