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Restrictions on Cycle Rickshaws Arbitrary, says Delhi High Court
The Delhi High Court recognizes the city's cycle rickshaw pullers' right to the road. Photo by youngdoo.

The Delhi High Court recognizes the city's cycle rickshaw pullers' right to the road. Photo by youngdoo.

In a landmark decision last month, the Delhi High Court ruled that the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s policy of limiting the number of cycle rickshaws is unconstitutional. This verdict represents a key step in defending the right to the road for all forms of transportation – not just autos – and protecting the livelihoods of some of India’s most disadvantaged populations.

Previously, the MCD capped the number of licenses to operate cycle rickshaws at 100,000. Additionally, it had limited the areas where cycle rickshaws could circulate, granted licenses only to cycle rickshaw owners, and allowed the confiscation and destruction of cycle rickshaws that violated the laws. But in reality, there could be as many as a million cycle rickshaws in Delhi operating illegally by bribing the officers of the MCD and Delhi police. Thus, the rickshaw pullers – typically, seasonal migrants from the countryside with very few support systems – end up victims of a discriminatory policy that guards road space for automobiles driven by upper-income residents.

The Delhi High Court ruling threw out the reasoning behind this policy. It rejected the flawed idea that cycle rickshaws cause congestion in a city of 6 million personal vehicles, of which nearly 3.8 million are four-wheelers. It also found the MCD’s policy of refusing to regulate automobiles while enforcing unrealistic limits on cycle rickshaws unfair and patently arbitrary. Moreover, the Court quashed the policy of issuing licenses only to cycle rickshaw owners, as it discriminates against seasonal migrants. Finally, it found the confiscation of cycle rickshaws by the MCD ultra vires, or beyond the power of the government.

The Right to Livelihood

The plight of rickshaw drivers is very similar to that of street vendors. The ruling borrows some of its key arguments from Sodan Singh, a Supreme Court ruling which found that “Street trading is an age-old vocation… and one of the legitimate modes of earning livelihood” and therefore protected under the Indian constitution. This shift in our understanding of street vending has resulted in the National Policy for Urban Street Vendors, which lays out mechanisms to better regulate the informal trade sector. Likewise, the High Court argues that operating cycle rickshaws is a valid occupation that cannot be eliminated.

Driving cycle rickshaws is not by its nature a degrading activity. It is true that rickshaw pullers tend to be prone to tuberculosis and other cardiovascular diseases (as anyone who’s read “The City of Joy” would know). But recent improvements in cycle rickshaws have made it a less strenuous activity and healthier rickshaw pullers will be more resistant to disease. Furthermore, the threats to rickshaw pullers’ health are exacerbated by high levels of pollution caused by unrestrained motorization, for which restricting cycle rickshaws is no solution.

Removing restrictions on cycle rickshaws is mainly about extending the benefits of liberalization to the poorest Indians. Delhi’s license quota regime for cycle rickshaws is no different from the license quota raj that hindered India’s economic growth before the 1990s. Twenty years later, we have finally realized that the poor also deserve economic freedom.

Planning Issues

This case is also about good transportation planning. The Court recognized that removing restrictions on cycle rickshaws is good for mobility. Cycle rickshaws are non-polluting, cheap, versatile, and very convenient for short distances. The Court also comes out strongly in favour of non-motorized transportation and bus lanes.

“The City Government has implemented bus corridors in certain areas. These measures when implemented, or replicated in a large scale, would perhaps cause hardship, and generate controversy. Yet there are two aspects, which cannot be forgotten. One, Planet Earth seems to be running out of options unless “unorthodox” and sometimes unpopular policies are pursued… Two, road management cannot mean prioritization of access to only one class of vehicles, particularly when there is a significant body of evidence that such class contributes to clogging of roads. Though public transport users apparently contribute the bulk of the city commuters… [t]he propensity of [cars] is to appropriate a lion’s share of the road space available in Delhi.” (Manushi Sangathan v Govt. of Delhi)

To reconcile government policy with its opinion, the Court has ordered a committee to look into congestion pricing and all possible mechanisms to reduce the numbers of automobiles in the city and make non-motorized modes of transport more accessible and safe, including BRT and congestion pricing. This is a significant recognition of the principles of sustainable transportation by a highly influential court.

Applicability in Other Cities

Cities like Mumbai and Bangalore have banned cycle rickshaws altogether, and have congestion as bad as Delhi’s, so this ruling is certainly relevant in other places. There is considerable debate as to whether a High Court judgment is valid throughout India, but there is at least one dictum supporting the view that a High Court ruling is applicable throughout the country unless another high court finds to the contrary. However, this question will be moot if the ruling is appealed in the Supreme Court by the Government of Delhi.

An Outstanding Verdict

This is the latest in a series of very impressive and bold judgments coming from the Delhi High Court. I have felt for some time now that a progressive judiciary has a lot to contribute to the practice of sustainable and equitable city planning. In the past, cases like Mt. Laurel and the Delhi CNG case have contributed to some extent to improving the urban experience in their respective countries. However, these advanced legal doctrines have not been adequately implemented. The task before us now is to ensure that this cycle rickshaw decision does not go down the same path. Recent related developments are concerning. Delhi’s chief minister is now advocating the banning of auto rickshaws within three to five years. Like the cycle rickshaws, these vehicles provide valuable benefits to Delhi’s citizens and are legitimate modes of transportation. The solution is not to ban them, but to work with stakeholders to restructure and reform the sector.