Mohammed Abdul Bari is working on improving life for Dhaka’s rickshaw pullers by convening the city licensing corporation, police and law enforcement agencies, insurance agencies, health officials, rickshaw owners, and the drivers in a single forum. His approach emphasises both the rights and the responsibilities of the rickshaw pullers.
Md. Abdul Bari is professionalizing the occupation of rickshaw pullers through an innovative combination of training, a trade association, and access to low-cost insurance. He then adds structural benefits such as affordable healthcare and recognition from government authorities. Bari’s strategy is to offer incentives in one area such as insurance or identity cards and thereby engage rickshaw pullers in other programs like healthcare awareness. Bari’s training programs help illiterate rickshaw pullers better their understanding of traffic rules and regulations and consequently decrease the risk of accidents. Bari also organizes pullers into associations and unions which issue identification cards to their members. These cards have been a simple method of giving legitimacy to the rickshaw pullers when dealing with police and other law enforcement agencies. At present, 25,586 rickshaw pullers have completed their training and have obtained their identity cards. Bari’s work extends beyond the rickshaw pullers’ occupational issues and into their personal lifestyles also. He has begun offering health training for rickshaw pullers and their families. To ensure adequate healthcare facilities, Bari has created a network with Dustha Shashtho Kendra (DSK), a citizen organization, and Marie Stopes Clinic. Rickshaw pullers trained at Bari’s organization can access free medical treatment and purchase low-cost medicines from these institutions. He has also developed low-premium insurance policies that ensure that, if the puller is injured or killed in an accident, his family will receive a one-time payment to enable them to begin their life anew.
Like many developing economies, Bangladesh is faced with very high rates of rural-to-urban migration for employment. Unable to make their living off the land, thousands of rural poor migrate to the capital city Dhaka in search of employment and many of them turn to pulling hand-rickshaws. At present, as many as 750,000 people are earning their livelihood by pulling rickshaws. Seventy-one percent of these rickshaw pullers are temporary residents of Dhaka and 29 percent live in Dhaka with their families. Despite long hours of grueling labor, rickshaw pullers earn very little. Of the 400,000 rickshaws in Dhaka, fewer than 80,000 are registered, while the rest are illegally operated. Rickshaw pullers rent the rickshaws from the owners for 100 takas (about US$1.50) for two shifts per day. They are often harassed by the police. Most rickshaw pullers in Dhaka begin their careers without any formal training on traffic rules and regulations and hence are more likely to become involved in traffic accidents. Rickshaw pullers and their families live in severely deprived conditions in Dhaka. Due to lack of basic amenities and sanitation facilities in slums the rickshaw pullers and their family members often suffer from serious health problems, which directly affects their earning capacity. Rates of Hepatitis B and HIV infection are high. Their children grow up without access to education and start working at an early age in dangerous conditions.
Bari’s insight into the problems of rickshaw pullers came from his personal observations and experience commuting in Dhaka. He realized that his ten minute trip to work was often stretched easily to an hour because of traffic congestion caused by rickshaw pullers who drove haphazardly and violated traffic rules. Deeply concerned, he began to study the socioeconomic situation of the rickshaw pullers and through his research, met Robert Gallagher, a British researcher who was then consulting on integration of non-motorized transport in Dhaka’s urban transportation system. Gallagher was seeking partnerships with citizen organizations working with rickshaw pullers. With his help, Bari obtained funding from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific to initiate a training program for the rickshaw pullers. Bari developed a five part training program for the rickshaw pullers. He recognized the importance of establishing the program systemically and hence his first step was to get the Dhaka City Corporation and the Dhaka Metropolitan Police to certify his training modules. The modules cover a wide range of topics that help the pullers understand traffic and road rules, their rights and responsibilities as well as social behavior and important health information for their families, especially women. Each batch trains approximately 25 people for about eight hours on two consecutive days. Trained rickshaw pullers are then organized into unions and labor associations by Bari and issued identity cards. Bari secured financial support from Manusher Jonno, a citizen organization in Dhaka, to establish a training center in Dhaka and continue his successful training program. Recognizing that day long training sessions for the pullers would mean lost wages, Bari modified his program to conduct three-hour sessions at rickshaw garages. Talking to the participants in the initial training sessions, Bari gathered that two issues of major concern to the rickshaw pullers were health and compensation for families in case of injuries or death. Bari decided to focus on creating insurance products for this previously un-served population. He worked out a deal with Pragati Insurance, one of Bangladesh’s premier private insurance companies and helped them create an affordable product for the rickshaw pullers. For 20 taka, a puller could purchase a one-year policy which would give a one-time payment of 20,000 taka to the family if the rickshaw puller was maimed or killed in a traffic accident while on duty. Later on, Bari successfully helped the company offer a 31 taka policy with an increased compensation of 40,000 taka. Bari’s organization, BEDO, assists insurance companies in preparing group policies for rickshaw pullers, and assists the rickshaw pullers in adjusting their claims on the policies. At present, 4,174 rickshaw pullers hold policies.Bari wants to ensure the overall socio-economic development of the rickshaw pullers. He pays special attention to health issues, knowing about the pullers’ squalid living conditions. He has developed a partnership with DSK, PSTC, and Marie Stopes for providing free medical treatment to rickshaw pullers who have undergone training, particularly those who hold BEDO identity cards. His training program contains a special focus on health for the rickshaw pullers’ wives, who can then ensure basic sanitation and health for the entire family. Bari has also developed ideas for enabling rickshaw drivers to switch to alternative livelihoods. This is being done via negotiations between government, donors, and PKSF (a preeminent microfinance institution) to make funds available specifically for rickshaw drivers.
Bari was born in Noagaon in a family of eight siblings. A bright student, Bari secured scholarships to complete a degree in marine engineering from the Marine Academy. Following the War of Liberation in 1971, he left his job as an engineer on a Pakistani vessel stationed in Hong Kong and returned to Bangladesh where he eventually became the Chief Engineer of the Bangladesh Shipping Corporation. While on various shipping assignments, Bari started tutoring programs for ship engineers to help them prepare for qualification exams for higher education. To help native speakers, he developed a Bangla language text book on marine engineering which was published by the Bangla Academy. Bari went on to set up a ship surveyor business in Kholna in 1983 that still continues to thrive today. In the mid-90s while working in Dhaka, Bari began to observe the rickshaw pullers on the streets of Dhaka. With initial funding from UNESCAP he set up BEDO to focus on this population. In 2004 he was able to secure funding to start expanding his work with the rickshaw pullers. Bari is a father of two children, and also a writer, columnist and musician in his spare time.