Designing a new gear mechanism to reduce the burden on rickshaw pullers

Rickshaw pulling is one of the lowest jobs you can have in an Indian city. The ranks of “pullers” (a potentially misleading term since these are pedal-powered tricycles, not two-wheeled carts pulled by someone on foot) are usually filled with men who have migrated from the towns and villages of India's countryside into the rapidly growing cities. So I, a 20-year-old American male, got a few strange looks while being pulled around in a rickshaw by Becky, my partner in crime and a fellow student at Olin College of Engineering. 

We were in Guwahati, in the state of Assam, with Olin's ADE program, working on several projects that had the common aim of financially empowering rickshaw pullers. 

It was my first trip to a city in an economically emerging country and I was unprepared. We passed by children working in coal depots, loading and unloading the dozens of trucks that came through each day, and watched gaunt, wheezing men struggle to pull their rickshaws up the slight gradients of Guwahati. The air in the industrial district where we worked was blanketed by smoke, diesel exhaust and coal dust, while the open sewers that lined the streets were filled with trash and a bubbling sludge. My naïve conceptions about the lives of the over 3 billion people that live on less than $2 a day were shaken up.

I come from an upper-middle class family and grew up well-insulated from, and largely apathetic about, the world beyond the Chicago suburbs. At Olin I slowly began to challenge those parts of my worldview that I had uncritically accepted, and there was a moment of crystallization when I took Sustainable Design my junior year. The class solidified a desire to learn more about environmentalism and ecological sustainability, and the next semester I took a leave of absence for an internship with a nonprofit environmental organization. 

My time away from Olin was one of personal growth; I encountered new and radical views about social justice, environmentalism and politics. I returned to Olin for my senior year with renewed motivation to earn my Mechanical Engineering degree and focus on social justice, of which I see environmentalism, sustainability and economic justice as components.

Olin’s ADE program fit well with my new mission. Broadly speaking, the goal of the program is to develop solutions that address poverty around the world through long-term collaboration with local partners. I joined the India team, where the project’s goal was to reduce the physical strain on rickshaw pullers by designing and implementing a multiple-geared rickshaw drivetrain.

There are 3 million rickshaw pullers providing transportation in India, mainly in the cities. The combined weight of passengers and rickshaw can exceed 400 pounds, and the work of moving this is gruelling. The resulting stress on the body can easily lead to injuries and sickness.

Pulling rickshaws is often a family’s only source of income, so a rickshaw puller falling into poor health can be disastrous, as savings and assets often get used to cover treatment while the family's source of income has stalled.

Our belief was that a rickshaw redesigned to be less burdensomecould lead to healthier pullers and more financial stability. Even in the best case, rickshaw pulling cannot be a lifetime job, and an ability to save money enables pullers to invest in another source of income or move on to a better job.

I spent most of my time in Guwahati working in our program partner’s factory, which employed a dozen people and made a few rickshaws each day. Working within the local context, we adapted our design to feedback from rickshaw pullers and to constraints around the locally available materials and machining processes. I worked closely with a genius bicycle mechanic at the factory, who helped us test, refine and troubleshoot our designs. His English was quite poor, and my Assamese was poorer, but we were able to communicate without words because we each knew the language of mechanics.

This experience of intuitive mutual understanding between two people from very different cultures has always stuck with me.

After two weeks, we had fitted two rickshaws with a new retro-direct drivetrain, which allowed the puller to engage a lower gear by pedalling backwards, and had done some initial user testing. We left the project with promises from our partner to give us feedback on how our two prototypes fared. We set up a longer-term data collection system to validate our theory of social impact.

After I graduated, I led the next trip back to India in 2012, and we spent more time in Guwahati and tried to find the rickshaws we’d built. Unfortunately, the project had stalled and the project was put on hiatus. Even though the deployment of our project encountered problems, I learned an immense amount from the experience and found a deep interest in this kind of work.

My experiences with ADE directly influenced my decision to work outside of the States. I had returned to that same environmental nonprofit after graduating from Olin but felt a strong pull towards the kind of work that I had done in India. So I took a job working as an engineer for a sanitation start-up in Ghana (in West Africa) designing a process to turn human waste into a renewable fuel. While I am very excited about the mission of the project, I felt removed from the local context and people.

I missed ADE-style work: being in a different part of the world, delving into a project with immediate social impact, working with local stakeholders to design ways to directly address people’s unmet needs. I enjoy connecting with people like the genius rickshaw mechanic in Guwahati and finding ways to collaborate. This realization led me to accept a fellowship with a start-up in Tanzania, which I’d heard about through ADE, where I’ll be working on research and development of affordable agricultural equipment. I’m starting with a pedal-powered maize sheller that could replace a laborious process done by hand.

I often think about what it means to be a relatively wealthy person from an economically developed country working in low-income and resource-poor areas of the world. I feel that it’s very easy to approach problems with the best of intentions, but to end up insulting people with a paternalistic approach of “you have this problem, let me fix it for you.” It’s not only arrogant but counter-productive. It ignores the valuable skills, knowledge and intuition of community members.

My experiences in India working at the factory made it clear to me how much I can learn from people of all backgrounds. We knew we had ideas and skills to offer, but we grew to understand that there was so much that we didn’t know; that our partners had insights, skills and ideas that we didn’t, and that without that collaboration we had nothing of any real value. 

There is a straight line between my work in ADE and my recent decision to move to Tanzania; if I hadn't taken the class and travelled to India, I wouldn’t have recognized the fulfilment that comes from this kind of work.

See dozens of pictures and read posts from John and current students on the ADE India blog.