A PRACTICAL TRANSPORTATION SOLUTION AND SUSTAINABLE LIVELIHOOD GENERATOR IF DESIGNED RIGHT

The cycle rickshaw is an eco-friendly last mile mode of transport. It is a source of livelihood for millions of marginalized in India. Poor design at every stage, from the vehicle itself, to lack of integrated transportation planning, and non existent enabling policies, have rendered a potentially good concept into an exploitative industry for rickshaw pullers, and an unsafe ride for passengers.

OBVIOUS FAILINGS AND AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT

When Dr. Amod Kumar began thinking about redesigning the conventional cycle-rickshaw in 2009, he listed five glaring improvement areas – brakes that gripped front wheels alone, increasing risk of toppling ; high sitting position of the passenger that made entry / exit difficult, and a dangerously high centre of gravity that affected stability ; absence of shock absorbers that created an extremely bumpy ride and impact injuries ;  poor material quality and rising maintenance expenses ; non-existent aesthetic sensibilities.  The incorporation of a solar powered / hybrid system would make pedaling easier. And if more comfortable seating for the passenger could be extended to pull out bedding for the rickshaw puller, it would transform the cycle rickshaw. 

In 2013, supported by students and faculty of the Physics and History Departments of St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, and with a modest grant from Delhi University, an improved rickshaw was rolled out complete with four wheel braking, improved shock absorbers, lower seating, solar hybrid electrical system, comfortable passenger seat that folded out into a bed for the rickshaw puller, pull down mosquito net, fan, radio and a mobile charger. Sukoon 1 (‘comfort’ in Urdu) was a concept design, now supported by Mission Samriddhi as it has transitioned to Sukoon IV, currently being piloted among 25 rickshaw pullers in Delhi.

SOLAR HYBRID SUKOON IV AT RS.50,000 PER UNIT DELIVERS A SMOOTH RIDE

Conventional rickshaws costs Rs.10,000. Models with battery bolted on (which are increasingly visible  on the streets) cost Rs.40,000. Interactions with rickshaw pullers revealed high total cost of ownership of such rickshaws. With running costs including once in 5 – 6 months battery coil replacement (Rs.14,000), plus battery maintenance, plus overnight charging fee , plus official / unofficial fines.

With the significantly better designed Sukoon, there is no running cost related to battery coil replacement. Sukoon IV coasts 55km on full battery charge. Pedal to start, and charge the battery while pedaling. The cruise speed of 20kmph is rarely experienced courtesy prevailing traffic conditions. Each successive design enhancement has seen more refinements in energy systems (solar panel capacity ; charging station ; batteries ; external charge port) ; greater comfort (cushioned seats, back and arm rests) ; additional and long lasting shock absorber pads under the seat. The design road map includes the introduction of mechanical differential braking system, increased battery capacity, more storage space, instrumentation, and better quality finishes.

VIDYAJYOTI COLLEGE OF THEOLOGY, NEW DELHI SERVES AS A VALUABLE RESOURCE FOR THE PILOT

Father Anil D’Almeda, Brothers Savari Joseph, Felix Marshall, and Amal Raj work with the 160 strong  rickshaw puller community as part of their assigned annual social service project. 40 – 50 of these rickshaw pullers are very regular, and it is among this group that the first 25 Sukoon IV rickshaws are being piloted. The planned routing grid is Delhi University / Civil Lines / Metro station. 

Sukoon rickshaw pullers will pay a monthly rent for vehicle usage. Ownership will be transferred to them after 3 years. Training on vehicle operations and maintenance, courteous and defensive driving, observing of traffic rules, interpersonal engagement skills, and grooming are some basic curriculum elements. Health checks, personal insurance, provision of uniforms and ID cards, enrolment with local law enforcement, are a few of the other protocols involved in engagement with the community.

BRAND ENGAGEMENT TO EMBRACE A CONCEPT AND TRANSFORM IT INTO A MOVEMENT

Brand partners in the form of public and private sector enterprises will be encouraged to join the initiative. Outright and shared vehicle sponsorship apart, there are opportunities for innovative use of the Sukoon fleet as an advertising and conversation medium. Given the plotted route there is additional potential for meaningful targeted reach for specific products and services ranging from local retail and offer testing efficacy, to locality based outreach and public service messaging.

EVOLVING REGULATION AND BACK TO COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

Over the years there has been much talk of regulatory frameworks for rickshaws. This has been slow coming. With motors fitted, there is increased risk of road accidents from poorly built and now faster moving vehicles. As part of its ecosystem connect efforts, the project team will engage with policy makers and opinion leaders to mobilise support for solar hybrid Sukoon and explore new avenues for their deployment (eg. Tourism street tours). Fully battery operated e-rickshaws present a recent development that seemingly leapfrogs from hybrid solar to fully powered vehicles. The team believes this is a retrograde step and solar hybrid presents a more sustainable, cost efficient and health alternative. Community development markers for the pilot include parameters on health, confidence and communication skills, earnings, pride in impending vehicle ownership, vehicle awareness and upkeep, passenger ratings, local law enforcement ratings, among others.    

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Father Anil D’Almeda, Brothers Savari Joseph, Felix Marshall, and Amal Raj at the Vidyajyoti College of Theology campus with Sukoon IV vehicles ahead of a session with rickshaw pullers.

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Solar panels on the roof. Very comfortable seating. Concealed battery unit, external charging port.

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Passenger seat extends into a full sized bed for the rickshaw puller.

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‘Between the ordinary rickshaw and Sukoon, it’s the difference between heaven and earth’ –  (translated from a rickshaw puller’s comments in Hindi) after trials.

‘Between the ordinary rickshaw and Sukoon, it’s the difference between heaven and earth’ –  (translated from a rickshaw puller’s comments in Hindi) after trials.

While working with Mother NGO for Homeless coordinating government-citizen efforts to respond to the needs of the homeless in Delhi, my eyes were opened to the particularly vulnerable plight of the homeless rickshaw puller. They cannot use shelters at night for fear of losing their vehicles. They try to get some sleep in the uncomfortably tight place available in the rickshaw, not designed till now to serve this need. I decided to design a better rickshaw. That would serve them better by day, and by night. That would also necessarily have to provide passengers with a significantly better experience.

amod

Project lead :

Dr. Amod Kumar