Rickshaw Revolution

Jul 10, 2011

Financial whizzkid and founder of Samman Foundation, Irfan Alam, is riding high on the rickshaw revolution he started.

1069 Samman helps the rickshaw drivers with accident insurance, a savings bank account and housing. (Photo by Todd Wilkinson)

On May 13 this year, Irfan Alam, who skyrocketed to prominence for his single-handed revolution of the rickshaw business in India, found himself spending the night in a decrepit jail cell in Shastrinagar Police Station in Bihar State. Arrested by local police on charges of abducting, wrongfully confining and assaulting a software engineer in a dispute over money, Irfan says he was brutally beaten in lock-up, and vehemently denies what he claims are trumped-up charges. Despite these developments, he is unflustered. “I’m not concerned,” he told me in an e-mail from a business trip while in New York. The matter, he says, is in the hands of “the highest authority”. By this he may mean the hands of Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar, a close friend of Irfan’s, who has made a name for himself with his zero-tolerance stance against corruption in India. 

To be clear, this article about social entrepreneurship wasn’t supposed to start this way. Just weeks ago, I had met with an ebullient Irfan at the Peninsula Hotel in downtown Singapore to discuss developments at Samman – a cooperative he set up in 2007 which has radically changed the lives of more than 500,000 rickshaw operators around India; a feat that has even reached the admiration of President Barack Obama and earned Irfan a seat at a dinner thrown last year at the White House to honour social revolutionaries everywhere.

If numbers could scream, the din surrounding Samman would be deafening.

At my meeting with him, Irfan, who cut his entrepreneurial teeth at age nine by running a respectable business renting out a personal comic collection for a rupee a day to friends, was in feisty form. Dressed in a crisp white shirt with buttoned–up cuffs and jet-black suit that would do any Mod proud, he explained that his plans for Samman are big, with holistic change for this marginalised community the ultimate goal. If numbers could scream, the din surrounding Samman would be deafening. With a seed capital of just INR10 lakhs (US$20,000), the company is already raking in over INR2 crore (US$500,000) a year.

As far as Irfan is concerned, the sky’s the limit with dreams of eventually bringing all India’s estimated 10 million rickshaw operators under the Samman umbrella. If success continues the way it has for this financial impresario, a planned IPO by 2012 is likely.

Whether these charges against Irfan turn out to be bona fide accusations that result in a conviction or if they emerge as a storm in a teacup remains to be seen. But they are unlikely to stop the progress of Samman and the national impact that it has had on one of India’s most underprivileged communities – illiterates with no real social standing, no education and no hope.

I’ve witnessed the changes myself. On a recent trip to Delhi, a city I lived in a decade ago, I sat in the back seat of a hired car on my way to a meeting with a minister at Parliament House in the capital’s picturesque government quarter. It was a public holiday and scores of parents and their unsteady children shod in roller blades swooped up and down the sweeping expanse of the tarmac driveway. As my driver slowly drove past them, a rickshaw sped nonplussed past us. Its operator, an elderly gentleman with salt and pepper hair and skin the colour of weathered brown leather, smiled broadly through a yellow grin as he sailed by, waving his intention to turn right.

I wondered quizzically at the unfamiliar sight. Clad in a bright fire engine red tee shirt, the “rickshaw-wallah” and his matching crimson cycle looked immaculate; the rickshaw’s chrome rims gleamed, its new tires practically squeaked. A specially rigged panel in front of the passenger seats had been customised to store water bottles, juices and glossy brochures. On the back and sides of the contraption were secured three plastic banners of commercial advertising in perfect Helvetica print. I’d seen rickshaw operators years back in India, but none like this. Then, they were rickety, unkempt contraptions and a cheap, no-frills way to travel short distances.

Before Samman, over 95% of all operators, some of whom had no roof over their head, had to rent out their rickshaws from dubious rickshaw owners for between INR20 to INR30 a day. Earnings were a pittance at INR30 to 40. A Samman operator now typically earns up to INR300 a day.

The benefits Samman offers to the rickshaw operators are a bagful of goodies which would “incentivise” any operator to join forces with the organisation. In return for a nominal fee to rent the cycle, Samman helps them with accident insurance, a savings bank account and housing.  The rickshaws also get 50% of the advertisement revenue. Irfan has even worked with banks to help finance the operators to purchase their cycles.

With the cycle rickshaw-pulling sector sizeable, it contributes to 30% of the urban transport, future prospects for Samman seem formidable. “And organising cycle rickshaws is just an entry point,” said Irfan, who told me he had set his sights on the equally large auto-rickshaw business on India’s roads.

While his recent tryst with the local Bihari police and subsequent release on bail won’t have changed any of this dynamic 28-year-old’s plans, it has certainly put into sharp focus the speculation that Irfan’s runaway business success, even if it is philanthropic, may have been the unfortunate victim of petty local jealousies gone bad.

Since the incident, Irfan says he has been under pressure to leave Bihar. But, as Irfan insists, leaving is not part of the plan. If the work of Samman were to suffer because of Irfan’s bizarre arrest, it might arguably demoralise the rickshaw drivers who, beyond the benefits, have been given their dignity back. And that would be shame. Because of Irfan, they also have something that, for the lowest castes, has for all of India’s history evaded a price tag – hope.  Right now, with his own faith in the system shaken, it might be what Irfan Alam, change-maker and visionary, needs most himself.