Driving Impact By Reinventing The Rickshaw: Turning Empathy Into Action

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Ashoka's "Change in the Making" Forbes blog and is a part of a series of Inventior-Entrepreneur stories brought to you in partnership with the Lemelson Foundation

Pradip Sarmah was riding in a rickshaw one day in India when he had a conversation that would change the course of his life. He asked how much the man pulling him made per day, if he owned his own rickshaw, and how long he’d been working as a rickshaw puller.  The man had been working as a rickshaw puller for 16 years, made about one US dollar a day, and had never been able to save up to buy his own rickshaw (rather, he paid a daily rent to the rickshaw’s owner).

The man’s answers to Pradip’s questions intrigued him, leading Pradip to engage in a much grander study about the lives of rickshaw pullers. What he found deeply disturbed him: The vast majority of India’s estimated 10 million rickshaw pullers don’t own their own rickshaws; rather, they are caught in a cycle of debt and looked down upon by society. They do not have health or accident insurance. Their bodies endure extreme stress and age quickly. Despite the fact that many pullers are immigrants from more rural parts of India looking for work, their upward mobility in society—socially and economically—remains static.

Pradip’s curiosity and empathy for the man he met that day became the seed of Pradip’s latest venture: the Rickshaw Bank, part of the Center for Rural Development. It was his ability to understand the reality of that rickshaw puller—put himself in his shoes, if you will—that provided him with the necessary perspective to develop real solutions that would impact and improve the puller’s life. To do this, Pradip worked with the rickshaw pullers themselves to deeply understand their needs. With support from engineering students, he reinvented the way the rickshaws work, making them simultaneously stronger, safer, and capable of displaying advertising that would allow the pullers to own their own rickshaws up front. By familiarizing himself with  user needs and taking their feedback into account, Pradip has allowed thousands of drivers to participate in the rickshaw bank, and he is now spreading his methods across India and throughout Asia through a grassroots movement and national policy advocacy work.

Meet Ashoka-Lemelson Fellow Pradip Sarmah:


With this story and others, Ashoka and The Lemelson Foundation are building a library of evidence to inspire the next generation of inventors and changemakers.