Cycle Rickshaws (CRs) has been an integral part of India’s daily commuting culture and urban mobility. Being environmental friendly, non-polluting and cost effective, they provide last mile connectivity to various dropping points like bus stops, markets, schools, metros, narrow street lanes, etc. This industry also absorbs a huge proportion of the unskilled migrant labour class who fail to get other better earning jobs in cities. 
Since less than 10% of Indian households own a private car and less than 21% own a two wheeler (Census 2011), CRs have emerged as the most preferred and one of the cheapest means of transport utility in urban and semi-urban parts of India.

Contrasting Views on Cycle Rickshaws

Over the years, CRs have come under the wrath of unsupportive government agencies, police departments and municipal corporations. They are looked upon as a nuisance and slow-moving vehicles that obstruct the smooth and speedy flow of traffic on heavily congested roads. 
In Delhi, CRs have been accused for creating traffic congestion. Institutional efforts have been made to curtail their growth amidst severe backlash from the social development sector. For instance, while preparing the Twelfth Five Year Pla in 2011, the Planning Commission constituted a committee for urban transport. It stated that this mode of transportation causes a traffic hazard on narrow city roads and that efforts should be made to control this issue.
But many activist organisations have spoken against this claim. The Director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Sunita Narain, states that “it is a misconception that cycle-rickshaws cause congestion. It is the cars that are causing congestion. It is sad that in a socialist country like India, the poor rickshaw pullers are getting targeted for no fault of theirs.” 
The cycle rickshaws is essential in the development of transport and socio-economic sectors. Many policy experts and researchers have reiterated that banning this mode of transportation is only going to compound the environmental and socio-economic problems in cities.
As an advocator of promoting stronger socio-economic development policies in balance with environmental protection, I second the thoughts of Ms Narain and other experts. Pollution levels are increasing and so is the rise in average annual mean temperature as a result of climate change. Now more than ever, it is imperative to encourage usage of non-motorized modes of transport.
Specifically cycle rickshaws are a great alternative for non-consumption of fuel. Not only are they cost effective for short distance travel but are non-polluting and provide employment at a low capital cost.

Historical Evolution 

The first usage of cycle rickshaws was in Japan in 1870. It then spread to neighbouring countries like India, China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia and Vietnam. In India, around the 1930s, cycle rickshaws for transport first appeared in the streets of the British summer capital of Shimla. Over time, growing urbanisation created the huge growth of CRs over the entire Indian subcontinent, especially India and Bangladesh.
Delhi has the largest number of cycle rickshaws in India with unofficial estimates over six lakh cycle-rickshaws (only 89,429 are licensed) and four lakh goods rickshaws. In Delhi alone, cycle-rickshaws make more than one crore short-distance trips in a day. This saves huge government investment in parking and millions of rupees that would otherwise have been spent on motorised transport for the same number of trips. The Delhi metro only operates on selected routes and in the absence of cycle rickshaws, the utility of the metro remains limited. It is the cycle rickshaw that fulfills the first and last mile connectivity in Delhi and other metropolitan cities. Despite their usefulness, cycle rickshaws are not allowed to park near metro stations or bus stops.

Supporting This Sector

There has been a lot of institutional effort to rid Indian cities of CRs. But recently, some policies have come up in support of them. The National Urban Transport Policy 2014 has talked about the importance of cycle rickshaws. The policy document states:
Cycle rickshaw should form a part of Urban Transport planning process and be provided with the necessary infrastructure such as stabling and waiting places. The technology of cycle rickshaw, in India, is outdated. Several American and European manufacturers of cycle rickshaws often incorporate features not found in developing world vehicles, such as hydraulic disc, and lightweight fibreglass bodies, multispeed gears to lessen the effort for the rickshaw puller. Similar upgrade should be undertaken in India.” 
In the last few years, the importance of CRs has been recognised by many developed countries.  To support this sector, some countries in Europe and America have come up with innovative mechanisms to promote the use of cycle rickshaws. In the United States, a company called Main Street City Cab has developed hundreds of models of modern cycle rickshaws. It has revised its design to increase its speed, improve its braking system and has made changes that are suitable for the driver and the passenger. 
In India too, NGOs and engineers have come up with inventive rickshaw models to reduce the drudgery of pullers. Dr Rajvanshi, Director of Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Phaltan, Maharashtra has created four unique types of rickshaws which include Improved Pedal Rickshaw (IMPRA), Motor Assisted Pedal Rickshaw (MAPRA ), Electric Rickshaw (ELECSHA) and MANHARA (Motor Assisted NARI Handicapped Rickshaw).
Looking at the pivotal role of CRs in the urban transport utility system, collective efforts need to be put into place to promote their use. They are more environmentally sustainable, and provide income-generating opportunities to the marginalised section that migrate to cities in search of greener pastures. 
Over the last decade, slow efforts are being made to promote the inclusion of CRs in mainstream urban transport. But still this sector faces many challenges. Efforts have to be made to make Indian policymakers understand the vital role of CRs in modernising infrastructure. We should be accommodating them and providing subsidies for better-equipped CRs like the developed world.