Can Indian rickshaws survive in a green and Uber-ised world?

Tuk tuks in Delhi. Image: Getty.

The three-wheeled auto rickshaw – nicknamed ‘tuk tuk’ after the judder of its two-stroke engine – has come to be a symbol of modern Indian city life.  Around a quarter of a million of them putter about the streets, mostly painted in bright yellow and green and decorated inside, often garishly, with photos, stickers and religious iconography.

Rickshaws have existed in some form or another for almost a hundred years, and employ thousands. But despite their cultural popularity, tuk tuks are facing their biggest challenges yet – and they’re of a distinctly 21st century variety. 

The crisis has its roots in India’s environmental problem. Tuk tuks make up about 4 per cent of national traffic, but are concentrated in India’s cities, many of which are among the most polluted in the world. The capital, Delhi, exceeded national pollution standards on 95 per cent of days in 2015. The problem is getting worse, with year on year figures showing a worrying escalation in both greenhouse gas and particulates, leading the government to declare Delhi’s pollution level an “emergency situation”.

In an attempt to bring road traffic pollution down, many state laws now require tuk tuks to run on greener fuel. In Mumbai, India’s most populous city, they must use compressed natural gas (CNG), which emits around 25 per cent less carbon dioxide than petrol. In recent years, tuk tuks have been one of the major drivers of the shift from petrol to gas-based fuels in Asia, spurred by cheaper prices and fuel efficiency. 

Nevertheless, carbon emissions have continued to rise. State and national government willingness to regulate tuk tuks as a source of emissions in the past suggests they are likely to be a target again, especially since they operate only where pollution is the worst. 

The international pressure to cut greenhouse gases is higher than ever, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s laudable declaration that India will go “above and beyond” the Paris Agreement will see regulation skyrocket in coming years. Already, government investment in projects such as the sparkling Delhi metro have earmarked city transport as a hotspot of Indian environmental policy, and tuk tuks stand between regulators and a greener India. 

Technological innovation could be the tuk tuk’s saviour. The adoption of battery-powered electric rickshaws has brought about a seating redesign, with golf buggy-style vehicles offering much more space than their CNG counterparts and spurring ride-sharing and efficiency gains. And, like their cycle-powered predecessors, e-rickshaws don’t kick out any Co2, nitrous oxide or particulates into cities.


Yet, for the time being, battery replacement costs make e-rickshaws more expensive than those with engines, and a culture of passengers bargaining down prices means that e-rickshaw drivers stand to make far less money from fares. Everywhere but Mumbai, the meters that tuk tuks are required to screw to the railings between driver and passenger sit unused: fares are instead established through fierce roadside haggling, and most don’t work anyway. A series of safety concerns have led to the banning of e-rickshaws in some cities, including Delhi, and the imposition of a speed limit of 25km/h elsewhere makes them much slower on busier roads and less attractive to prospective passengers. 

At the same time, electric and CNG tuk tuks alike face competition from that mortal enemy of taxi drivers: Uber. Ride hailing apps undercut tuk tuk prices by as much as 50 per cent, and offer air conditioning, card payments and a far more comfortable ride. 

Uber launched in India in 2013, and now sees millions of rides per year there – only the US uses the app more. An attempt at an Uber-ised tuk tuk in 2015 was eventually abandoned, along with attempts to mimic Indian “rickshaw culture”; but the new UberMOTO service has customers riding pillion on their driver’s motorbike for as little as 35 rupees (40 pence) for a half-hour trip.

Everywhere, tuk tuk drivers complain about the fall in prices since Uber’s arrival, and worry about the scarcity of passengers, especially for longer journeys. Although Uber vehicles are also required to use CNG in some cities, regulation has thus far targeted the various forms of rickshaw more than their techy competitor.

The tuk tuk sits at an uneasy crossroads. It is neither green enough to satisfy regulators, nor cheap enough to satisfy thrifty customers who can easily summon a cheaper ride on their smartphones. With the launch of environmental action under the Paris Agreement set for 2020, and fares being squeezed dangerously in the meantime, the familiar noise of the tuk tuk on Indian city streets could soon be facing extinction. 

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.