Providing veterinary services all over Guwahati meant a lot of commuting for Pradip every day. Once, when he did not get any transport, he hired a Cycle Rickshaw to reach the place. During the ride he got into a conversation with the rickshaw puller, which opened his eyes. Their plight, cycling in the scorching heat and drenching rain, dragging people and luggage all day, and living on pavements, shook him.
Brought up and educated in Orissa, Dr. Pradip Sarmah started his career as a government veterinary assistant surgeon, but 3 years later moved to Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Yojna, a funding organization, in the Northeast, as a veterinary consultant. In 1994, he started his own organisation ‘Centre for Rural Development (CRD)’ and a veterinary clinic too. He was totally engrossed in his profession, until he met the Rickshaw puller and heard his plight.
Hiring the rickshaw at a daily rate of Rs 25, the man was left with barely Rs 50, after paying the rent. Even after 16 years, he did not own his vehicle. “I was disturbed by his story, as with the rent he had paid, he could have owned the rickshaw many times over”, Pradip said. To understand this community better, he conducted a survey with 300 rickshaw pullers in Guwahati. He found that 95% of them had no financial stability and no dignity in society. Most of them rented rickshaws every day, and found it difficult to make both ends meet, living on pavements under pathetic conditions.
He wondered how to provide the rickshaw pullers a better and a dignified life. The existing rickshaw needed technical changes to reduce manual effort, and design changes to generate some revenue. He remembered, during his student days at the Assam Agricultural University, they had raised money for journals from companies by getting advertisements. Same could be applied here too.
He approached IIT Guwahati, who helped design a rickshaw that was lighter in weight, well covered, and had large exteriors to display advertisements. With the design in hand, Pradip set out to make the Rickshaw pullers own their Rickshaws, and started the RICKSHAW BANK.
Approaching Corporate Houses Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and Hindustan Unilever Limited, he raised Rs 7 Lakh from each of them, by promising them free advertisement for 3 years. He also set up a Rickshaw production and repair unit, providing employment to 18 youth. 500 Rickshaw pullers got their Rickshaws from this fund.
Owning the Rickshaw from day 1, the Rickshaw pullers paid Rs. 20/- daily, till they repaid back the loan in 10-12 months. This allowed the Rickshaw Bank to collect Rs. 10,000/- every day. After covering administrative expenses, the remaining money went toward purchasing and manufacturing new rickshaws. The Rickshaw Bank’s average monthly repayment rate was 92%.
This concept was replicated in other states too, and till now over 15,000 Rickshaw pullers and 1,00,000 beneficiaries have benefited from it. His dream came true, when many banks took up rickshaw financing schemes, and even agreed to provide them loans. “After Rickshaw Bank’s intervention, insurance companies also started providing insurances cover upto Rs 80,000 for the Rickshaw, Rickshaw puller and the passengers. It also gave them uniform, shoes, licenses, a photo identity card and related training,” he said.
Dr Sarmah and his Centre for Rural Development (CRD), has different models in different states. “We have developed 7 to 8 different concepts like the ‘Momo cart’, ‘Vegetable cart’, and ‘Fast food cart’ based on the requirement in different states.” he said. Pradip was also called to do a study on the scenario of Rickshaw pullers in 3 different states Assam, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. The results were published by UNDP.
Further in 2009 the Center for Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (a CSIR Institute) in Durgapur designed a solar powered rickshaw named “Solecksa” for CRD. Dr Sarmah who participated in a National Committee, helped the Government add E-Rickshaws in the category of motorized vehicles in 2012, sparking a splurge of E-Rickshaws including Solecksa in many states.
Sarmah, who was recently invited to present his case study to Harvard Business School and discuss technical challenges with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), stated that financing rickshaw pullers could become a huge business opportunity.
Dr Pradip Sarmah who was elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2001, still runs the Veterinary Clinic and the Rickshaw Bank. He has shown that all it takes to succeed is common sense, smart thinking, and a Do-it attitude. Rest everything falls in place.
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