Cart pullers from George Town to Chennai stand the test of time

Long working hours put a physical strain on workers. Photo: Etan Doronne/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY:SA 2.0)

George Town in Chennai encompasses NSC Bose Road and many alleyways that bustle with activity at all times. It is a wholesale market where businesses and individuals buy bulk goods at low prices. The narrow streets and the many shops make navigation on these roads very difficult. Although much has changed in the area over the years, the tricycle carts used by cart pullers to transport goods have remained constant.

In the din, from dawn to dusk, men can be seen on their tricycles, moving goods to and from the market. They work almost 12 to 14 hours a day. The cart used by these workers to transport materials in and out of the market area is a tricycle commonly known as a “Meen Body Vandi”.

The vehicle bears this name because in the past it was mainly used for transporting fish. Over time, it became the conventional means of transporting items in George Town.

Motorized versions of these carts have been banned by an order of the Madras High Court on the grounds that they are unregulated, without license, insurance or registration. Tricycles have continued to exist despite the work that takes a heavy toll on workers’ physical health and the low wages they face.

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Several decades of transporting goods in trolleys

There is no precise estimate of the number of these vehicles in this area. It’s bound to run into the hundreds. There are no dedicated parking positions. Workers mostly own their own vehicles and in some cases vehicles are rented daily by casual workers.

An informal survey of 72 of these workers provided much insight into their work and life.

Most workers were catapulted into this profession as teenagers due to family circumstances and have continued in it until now. Each interviewee has been engaged in this work for the past 25 years or more. The oldest worker was 88 years old and has been driving these vehicles since he was 18 years old. The majority of the workers are between 50 and 65 years old and have more than 30 years of experience in transporting materials on tricycle carts.

Chennai tricycle pullers
Many workers have been in this profession for decades. Photo: S Raghavan

The majority of workers begin their day with the opening of stores and establishments in the region. The quantum of work for the day is not defined and they are at the mercy of the weather and the liveliness of business in the market.

Sometimes they wait for work for long hours, only to stumble upon a task that needed to be done towards the end of the day. Workers are in informal contact with suppliers and transport companies who call on them whenever there is goods to move. The distance between the collection point and the delivery point can be in the bazaar area or in remote places within the limits of Chennai.

Regardless of the distance, they are ready to take any calls. On days when there is a lull in business, they spend many hours waiting for the next job.

Earnings from carts

Earnings are directly proportional to work. A sudden glut of orders for the seller will get a full day’s work for the workers. But there are times when they are only engaged for part of the day.

The average salary of each worker surveyed is around 600 rupees per day. The maximum they can earn is Rs 1000. Only a few workers have had days where they could earn up to Rs 1200. Earnings include loading materials onto their trolley, transporting and unloading, resulting in hard work. Fusion returns give them day-to-day life. The annual repairs of the vehicle would cost them around Rs 6000.

When the COVID lockdown crippled their livelihoods, many resorted to borrowing to meet their needs as their incomes plummeted. The borrowed money is now repaid in installments.

Winnings are received in cash instantly. Although all workers have mobile phones, very few use them for digital transactions.

Amenities and Constraints

Depending on the company’s activity, each worker travels between a minimum of 6 km and a maximum of 30 km per day. Deliveries to distant places like Mylapore and Tondiarpet are invariably taken in the second half of the day. There is a risk for the owners in this means of transport. Any damage to materials during shipping is not covered by insurance.

Workers are aware of this and companies rely on them as they are known to deliver without any damage to the goods. Traders favor this means of transport for its flexibility and low cost.

When asked if they would be willing to replace their tricycle carts with electric vehicles similar to those used in conservation work, some of the workers expressed their willingness. Others hesitated due to their financial inability to purchase such a vehicle. Workers who transport long pipes and steel materials are not in favor of switching to electric vehicles because they are not compatible with the materials they transport.

A loaded pull cart
Goods of great length are not compatible with circulation with electric vehicles. Photo: S Raghavan

Providing incentives for workers to switch to electric vehicles would help. The current vehicle, although it is not a greenhouse gas emitter, is harmful to the physical health of workers.

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Impact of cart pulling on worker health

Cycling long distances every day has a telling effect on their health. More than half of workers complained of knee, calf or leg pain. Many also suffer from diabetes. Some of the workers suffer from heart disease. They do not have access to advanced medical care and are forced to accept treatment available at the nearest public hospital at the appointed time.

Older workers have complained of blurry vision after sunset. This forces them to retire for the day earlier than their younger counterparts. With body pains having become chronic and a lack of medical attention, many of those interviewed frankly admitted that they sought relief by drinking alcohol at night.

“Alcohol relieves us of sore legs and prepares us for work the next day. After all, that’s what we want. Nothing more, nothing less,” says a 67-year-old worker who has worked for 40 years and who has developed an alcohol addiction.

fully loaded trolley
Fully laden carts are commonplace in George Town. Photo: S Raghavan

What can help

Many workers said their hard work was able to help provide a reasonably good education for their children. Some of their children have completed undergraduate degrees and are gainfully employed. Yet the workers continue their work because they do not wish to remain idle at home.

What can help improve their working conditions are some actions on the part of the government.

Keeping all lanes in the area clean, removing trash several times during the day, would help workers navigate these busy streets. The number of hygienic urinals and public toilets in the area should also be increased.

Health camps should be held periodically and these manual workers should be informed of various schemes such as the Chief Minister’s Comprehensive Health Insurance Scheme under which they can receive certain benefits. This will help them find solutions to the physical cost of work and get away from alcohol addiction.

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