No Rickshaw Rides Please

I might have an opportunity to visit Bangladesh. The chance just sprung up as I got more involved with people here in Miyazaki, Japan. As a gringo it doesn’t seem wise to go places where you don’t speak the language. I can walk into a barbershop in Okinawa and have the people laughing and dissing the emperor a minute after I open my mouth. If I couldn’t speak Japanese they would have been stiff and unresponsive thinking I was a U.S. marine on the feminist mission (1) of abusing the local female population (2).

Why go to Bangladesh?  it’s probably even hotter and more humid (is it possible?) than Miyazaki. It just seemed like a very productive way to spend 10 days – going to Bangladesh with people from Miyazaki. What a way to learn about two places at once and witness the Underdevelopment of Development. Noam Chomsky mentions the area in Powers and Prospects (google books) and again in a recent speech on DemcracyNow!.

We might, incidentally, remember that when the British landed in what’s now Bangladesh, they were stunned by its wealth and splendor. And it didn’t take very long for it to be on its way to become the very symbol of misery, not by an act of God.

I wonder if Prasannan Parthasarathi’s Who was Rich and Who was Poor in the Eighteenth Century was ever published. This has been one of the Key Points I try to hang onto to understand the world, It’s from Powers and Prospects, p. 101, and based on Prasannan Parthasarathi’s scholarship.

Daniel Defoe, expressing the common perception in 1728, warned that England faced and uphill struggle in attempting to compete with ‘China, India and other Eastern countries’. The problem was that they have ‘the most extended Manufacture, and the greatest variety in the World, by the meer Stress of their Cheapness’. They also may have had the highest real wages in the world at the time and the best conditions for working class organisation, so the most detailed recent scholarship indicates, contrary to long-standing beliefs. ‘Britain itself would have been deindustrialized by the cheapness of Indian calicoes if protectionist policies had not been adopted’, the same work concludes.

Contemporaries saw matters much in that light. A century after Defoe, liberal historian Horace Wilsion observed ruefully that without protection, ‘the mills of Paisley and Manchester would have been stopped in their outset, and could scarcely have been again set in motion, even by the power of steam. They were created by the sacrifice of Indian manufacturers’. It was India, not Britain, that was deindustrialised, including steel, ship-building, and other manufactures.

Britain showed the same ‘constant face’ when Egypt tried to undertake and industrial revolution under Mohammed Ali….

This ‘constant face’ is amazingly consistent when you read Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America on Argentina (p. 185) and Paraguay (p 188). Of course it’s not only Britain, no matter what my Irish genes might be trying to tell me.

For example, the newspaper New Nation in Bangladesh. There, we read, "It’s very telling that trillions have already been spent to patch up leading world financial institutions, while out of the comparatively small sum of $12 billion pledged in Rome earlier this year, to offset the food crisis, only $1 billion has been delivered. The hope that at least extreme poverty can be eradicated by the end of 2015, as stipulated in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, seems as unrealistic as ever, not due to lack of resources but to a lack of true concern for the world’s poor." That’s—they’re talking about approximately a billion people facing starvation, severe malnutrition, even 30 or 40 million of them in the richest country in the world. That’s a real crisis, and it’s getting much worse.


Well, the fate of Bangladesh should remind us that the terrible food crisis is not just a result of Western lack of concern. In large part, it results from very definite and clear concerns of the global managers, namely for their own welfare. It’s always well to keep in mind a astute observation by Adam Smith about policy formation in England. He recognized that what he called the "principal architects" of policy—in his day, the merchants and manufacturers—make sure that their own interests are most peculiarly attended to, however grievous the impact on others, including the people of England, but far more so those who were subjected to what he called the "savage injustice of the Europeans," and particularly in conquered India, his own prime concern. We can easily think of analogs today. His observation, in fact, is one of the few solid and enduring principles of international and domestic affairs well to keep in mind.

I just can’t pass up a chance to go see and smell some of this book learning. It’s not something you would go out of your way to do, go gawk, but if the opportunity falls into your lap why not go learn something, meet some people, maybe even try to get some of the NGO members interested in this history. It grates on my nerves to hear that begging, gouging out your eye or hacking off a limb for more pity profits, is part of the religion. In Islam rich people have to give to beggars in order to go to heaven. Was it like this in 1728? I’d like to ask Prasannan Parthasarathi, but I’m pretty sure he’ll say no..

One of the events on listed on this NGO Bangladesh schedule is a rickshaw tour of a shopping district. Not having travel agent liscense they have to go through a travel company to put the flights and everything together but I have to find out who put the rickshaw event on there. Why? It’s beyond ironic that a Japanese tour to think about international cooperation and the role of NGO’s would have a brochure picture of peace-signing tourists on a rickshaw. This is from pages 189-190 of Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums.

The rickshaw has always been a notorious emblem of the degradation of labor in Asia. Invented in Japan in the 1860s, it allowed "human animals" to replace mule carts and horse-drawn carriages as the chief means of transportation in the great cities of East and South Asia. Except in Japan, rickshaws survived even the competition of streetcars after the First World War because of their convenience, low cost, and role as status "passports" of the petty bourqeoisie. ("People tended to think," wrote the 1920s Beijing novelist Xi Ying, "if you don’t even have a private rickshaw, what on earth are you?")(49) Pulling a rickshaw was reckoned the harshest form of urban labor, and, in Shanghai at least, most pullers (lucky to earn the equivalent of ten cents a day) perished of heart attacks or tuberculosis within a few years.(50)

Revolutionaries, or course, denounced the rickshaw and promised a day of liberation for hundreds of thousands of rickshaw coolies, but in some parts of Asia, this day has been long postponed. Indeed, informal man-powered transit, including old-fashioned rickshaws and bicycle-based pedicabs (invented in 1940), probably employs and exploits more poor men today than in 1930. The ILO has estimated that there are more than 3 million richshaw-pullers on the streets of Asia.(51) In Dhaka ("God’s Own City," and urban planner told Jeremy Seabrook, because "it runs automatically"), the rickshaw sector is the "second-largest provider of employment in the city, second only to the million-or-so employed by the garment industry." The 200,000 rickshawallahs – the unsung Lance Armstrongs of the Third World – earn about a dollar per day for pedaling and average of 60 kilometers in Dhaka’s nightmarish traffic and pollution.(52) As the male occupation of last resort in a city of growing poverty, there is violent competition between licensed and unlicensed rickshaw-pullers, with the latter living in fear of police who regularly seize and burn their illegal "vehicles."(53)

Similarly in Calcutta, where Jan Breman has aptly described rickshaw-pulling as "urban share-cropping," 50,000 Bihari immigrants are the backbone of the industry. Most live away from their families, sometimes for decades, huddled together in sheds or stables, dependent on small tight-knit groups to regulate employment. They are not, Breman stresses, the "independently operating small entrepreneurs [of myth], busily thrusting their way upwards via accumulation, but dependent proletarians who live on the defensive." Their small symbolic compensation is that they are not the worst-off: that distinction belongs to the thelas, so low and heavy they must be pulled by a man and his whole family.(54)

I don’t want to ride in a rickshaw. Is there some way to redeem this kind of event? Figure out how to ask the puller/pedaller  how many kids he has? Then go pick them up and all go out to lunch together? I’m sure that will be easy, there’s a little soba shop or macrobiotic cafe right around the corner from the rickshaw stop. They have big welcome signs out for the rickshaw-pullers and their families… What am I getting myself into?  The world is insane (by design, not intelligent just greedy and immoral – errrr depraved).

   The only other background I have on Bangladesh is from Paul Bairoch (Eduardo Galeaon cites him too, it’s not just Chomsky!) and his Economics and World History, Myths and Pardoxes. (p.130) In a section titled The Contraints of rapid population growth he writes. "One of the most negative results of too rapid a population growth lies in the great difficulty for an economy to absor the numerous necomers into its workforce….In the Third World this situation did not allow the rest of the economy to absorb the agricultural labor surplus… Around 1950 in the Third World market economies there were only 2.4 hectares of agricultural land (2) per agricultural worker. In Europe, around 1910, which was the historical lowpoint, this figure was 3,6 hectares,…. Around 1990, for the Third World economies this ratio had fallen to below 1.8 hectares, and in some large Asian countries even below 1.0 hectare (Bangladesh, 0.4 hectare). " I haven’t read much Bairoch – Galeano is much more fun, but the underdevelpment of Latin America was accomplished with a lot of depopulation (Rober McNamara loved sterilizing the small populations of the Amazon, where all the minerals and oil were) so I’m not sure what to do with these figures….

Not to be all negative on the trip because of the rickshaw event – I still don’t know what’s involved with that, but there’s another day to see an cyclone-ravaged island. It should be good to go there with Japanese people with some environmental sensibilities. Recently I’ve been running into the idea that CO2 has no relation with global warming. It’s all a big PR scheme, Al Gore is just pushing Nuclear Power with faulty science. I doubt people suffering from harsher cyclones endorse a pattern of thought that makes it hard to consider global warming because utility companies’ recent advertising, and a few ‘scientists’, are raising doubts about human influences on the ‘naturally’ warming climate. I thought George Monbiot had torn all those arguments down a while ago…


(1) From Arundhati Roy’s Come September:

It’s being made out that the whole point of the war was to topple the Taliban regime and liberate Afghan women from their burqas, we are being asked to believe that the U.S. marines are actually on a feminist mission [laughter, applause]. (back)

(2) From Chalmers Johnson’s How to Deal with America’s Empire of Bases,  A Modest Proposal for Garrisoned Lands:

Or might they at least stop funding the same American military personnel who regularly rape Japanese women (at the rate of about two per month) and make life miserable for whoever lives near the 38 U.S. bases on Okinawa. This is certainly what the Okinawans have been hoping and praying for ever since we arrived in 1945. (back)

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