Let's be honest with ourselves. The beating of a rickshaw puller that took place yesterday in Dhaka's Bongshal, is that anything new? Haven't we seen enough of the same thing happening almost every day of our lives? The only difference this time was that the culprit got arrested.
If you pause for a moment and think about the numerous rickshaw pullers you've seen getting slapped, pushed, and thrown, you would lose count. It's as common as seeing potholes on the streets of Dhaka. But the question that has been bothering me is: Why can't we treat them with respect?
There isn't just one specific answer to that question. The problem is multi-dimensional and so is the answer. The love-hate relation people have with rickshaws is both funny and sad at the same time.
When you're commuting by car, you cannot but get irritated due to the rickshaw's absurd riding pattern. But when you're being pulled by a 'rickshaw wala mama', you automatically sympathise with his struggles.
People often confuse sympathy with empathy. There's a clear and obvious difference between the two. In the book titled Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, Hodges and Myers provided a fairly understandable distinction by explaining, "Empathy is often defined as understanding another person's experience by imagining oneself in that other person's situation: One understands the other person's experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it."
When everyone got enraged by seeing the video of the rickshaw puller getting tormented, it was sympathy that was controlling the emotions. The book perfectly explains the difference as, "Sympathy, in contrast, involves the experience of being moved by, or responding in tune with, another person."
We can easily sympathise when we see rickshaw pullers facing violence. But we actually don't understand what it means to be in their place.
On top of everything, we are in the middle of a pandemic. A recent survey jointly run by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development and the Power and Participation Research Center found a decrease of more than 80% in the average income of urban slum dwellers and rural citizens of Bangladesh. The survey included day labourers, rickshaw pullers, factory workers, and many other low-income individuals.
If you imagine living a day in the life of such individuals, I don't see how one can raise their voice, let alone torture someone who is going through every bit of struggle just to survive.
Another recent research titled, 'The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Mental Health of the Rickshaw-Puller in Bangladesh' which was published in the Journal of Loss and Trauma signified the impact of the pandemic on day earners of our country. The interviews conducted by the researchers on the rickshaw pullers stick out like a sore thumb.
Soleman Rahmat, a 36-year-old rickshaw puller said, "Earnings decreased during the period of Corona. Apart from renting a house, it is becoming difficult to run the family with the rest of the money. My wife left me in this situation. At this moment, my life is a mess. How long am I going to live like this without money and with fear of COVID-19?"
Another rickshaw puller by the name of Mir Sayed said, "During the COVID-19 Pandemic crisis, we faced anxiety about money and food. We neither can get out of here nor can we make money. No one hears about our problem. The stress is killing me."
Almost every lower-income individual you talk to, they'll tell you more or less the same story. That's the reality we are living in. So the next time your blood starts boiling because of a rickshaw, think twice about what the puller is going through.
Rickshaw is used by people of all the economic and social classes. The way Dhaka city is planned (some might say unplanned), i.e.: the narrow streets, water-logged roads, the only vehicle capable of taking on our roads is a rickshaw. Thus, Dhaka and rickshaws are almost inseparable, no matter what futuristic vehicle enters the market.
Since we need them on a daily basis, isn't it better to interact with these marginalised people perhaps with a smile?
Another pertinent step would be to raise awareness about the century-old laws of Bangladesh and enable rickshaw pullers to know that no one has the right to assault them. They should also be able to rely on law enforcers of the country to protect their rights enshrined in Section 352 of the Penal Code 1860.
This section states that "Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any person otherwise than on grave and sudden provocation given by that person, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to five hundred taka, or with both".
The law might seem to have loopholes that can be abused, however, it is to be mentioned that "Grave and sudden provocation will not mitigate the punishment for an offence under this section if the provocation is sought or voluntarily provoked by the offender as an excuse for the offence". Therefore, even if the offender claims that he was provoked by the rickshaw puller to assault him, there is little chance that he will be able to avoid punishment.
It is also imperative to mention here that whenever we are on the streets, the worst impertinence of a rickshaw puller is usually speeding-up and taking over or hitting "expensive" cars with their inexpensive rubber tires. Hence, unless we are absolutely barbaric, such petty acts should not gravely provoke assault or battery.
Be that as it may, it is unfortunate that sometimes, even the legal consequences are not enough to stop some people, because of the compensation's insignificance. Apparently, the law provides only 500 taka as compensation when hospital and medical bills owing to severe assaults can amount to thousands.
Therefore, the amount of compensation that offenders should be liable to give should increase from 500 taka to an amount that will at least cover medical expenses.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.