NEW DELHI, October 13 – A state-of-the-art, solar powered version of the humble cycle-rickshaw promises to offer a solution to urban India’s traffic woes, chronic pollution and fossil fuel dependence, as well as an escape from backbreaking human toil.,
The "soleckshaw", unveiled this month in New Delhi, is a motorised cycle rickshaw that can be pedalled normally or run on a 36-volt solar battery.
Developed by the state-run Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), prototypes are receiving a baptism of fire by being road-tested in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area.
One of the city’s oldest and busiest markets, dating back to the Moghul era, Chandni Chowk comprises a byzantine maze of narrow, winding streets, choked with buses, cars, scooters, cyclists and brave pedestrians.
"The most important achievement will be improving the lot of rickshaw drivers," said Pradip Kumar Sarmah, head of the non-profit Centre for Rural Development.
"It will dignify the job and reduce the labour of pedalling. From rickshaw pullers, they will become rickshaw drivers," Sarmah said.
India has an estimated eight million cycle-rickshaws.
The makeover includes FM radios and power points for charging mobile phones during rides.
Gone are the flimsy metal and wooden frames that give the regular Delhi rickshaws a tacky, sometimes dubious look.
The "soleckshaw," which has a top speed of 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) per hour, has a sturdier frame and sprung, foam seats for up to three people.
The fully-charged solar battery will power the rickshaw for 50 to 70 kilometres (30 to 42 miles). Used batteries can be deposited at a centralised solar-powered charging station and replaced for a nominal fee.
If the tests go well, the "soleckshaw" will be a key transport link between sporting venues at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
"Rickshaws were always environment friendly. Now this gives a totally new image that would be more acceptable to the middle-classes," said Anumita Roychoudhary of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.
"Rickshaws have to be seen as a part of the solution for modern traffic woes and pollution. They have never been the problem. The problem is the proliferation of automobiles using fossil fuels," she said.
Initial public reaction to the "soleckshaw" has been generally favourable, and the rickshaw pullers have few doubts about its benefits.
"Pedalling the rickshaw was very difficult for me," said Bappa Chatterjee, 25, who migrated to the capital from West Bengal and is one of the 500,000 pullers in Delhi.
"I used to suffer chest pains and shortage of breath going up inclines. This is so much easier.
"Earlier, when people hailed us it was like, ‘Hey you rickshaw puller!’ Police used to harass us, slapping fines even abusing us for what they called wrong parking. Now people look at me with respect," Chatterjee said.
Mohammed Matin Ansari, another migrant from eastern Bihar state, said the new model offered parity with car, bus and scooter drivers.
"Now we are as good as them," he said.
Indian authorities have big dreams for the "soleckshaw."
India’s Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal who hailed the invention for its "zero carbon foot print" said it should be used beyond the confines of Delhi.
"Soleckshaws would be ideal for small families visiting the Taj Mahal," he told AFP.
At present battery-operated buses ferry people to the iconic monument in Agra, but their limited numbers cannot cope with the heavy tourist rush.
CSIR director Sinha said he hoped an advanced version of the "soleckshaw" with a car-like body would become a viable alternative to the "small car" favoured by Indian middle class families.
"Greenhouse gas emissions are showing an increasing trend year on year and 60 percent of this comes from the global transport sector.
"In the age of global warming, the soleckshaw, with improvements, can be successfully developed as competition for all the petrol and diesel run small cars," Sinha said.