They have been a feature of Kolkata’s streets in India for more than a century, but authorities in the sprawling city want an end to the "inhuman" sight of emaciated men pulling rickshaws.
Next week the state of West Bengal plans to introduce legislation that will phase out back-breaking rickshaw-pulling in the city of 13 million people, increasingly known as a high-tech centre and home to many swanky shopping malls, coffee shops and bars.
"This inhuman mode of transport should have stopped years ago," said mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya.
"We can’t imagine one man sweating and straining to pull another man."
Talk of ending the cheap and popular form of transport has been going on for years, but the state government said an end was now in sight with plans to amend the 1919 Hackney-Carriage Act governing slow-moving vehicles.
"The bill will be placed before the house in the coming week," said West Bengal Transport Minister Subhas Chakravarty.
"Hand-pulled rickshaws do not match with the changing scenario of the city," he said.
The ruling Left Front has a massive majority in the 294-member house.
But the announcement has thrown the spindly legged, rag-clad rickshaw pullers – immortalised as a symbol of Kolkata in books such as Dominique Lapierre’s "City of Joy" — into turmoil.
City authorities say there are 5,937 registered hand-pulled rickshaws, but a Congress party lawmaker said the number was more than 40,000.
The men, known as "human horses", worry about how they will earn their living when the ban takes effect and their rickshaws can no longer ply the eastern city’s serpentine, congested alleys.
"Running a rickshaw is no more inhuman than working in the mines or in the fields," said Somen Mitra, leader of the Kolkata Rickshaw Pullers Union.
"The rickshaw pullers must be offered a proper rehabilitation package" so they can earn their living after the ban, he said.
The rickshaw pullers, whose wiry bodies glisten with perspiration as they haul their human loads in Kolkata’s steamy heat, earn around 100 rupees (2.25 dollars) a day. Most sleep, eat and live on the city’s crowded pavements.
Mitra said a single rickshaw was pulled by up to four men in rotation in a day. Most are poor people from neighbouring states, who do not own the vehicles and pay a considerable chunk of their earnings a day to the owner.
"We smile when our customers call us ‘human horses’. The government will snatch our smile if the rickshaws are banned," said 20-year-old Aktar Ali.
"We have nothing to do if the rickshaws are banned, we will starve," said Rakib Hussein, who has been in the business for more than 15 years.
Kolkata residents, who use the rickshaws to commute short distances in narrow bylanes, said the ban would be a loss for them as well.
"It is good mode of transport for short journey in narrow streets, particularly in the rainy season, when taxis and auto-rickshaw won’t agree to take you," said Pallabi Roy, 25, who drops her son to school in a rickshaw.
Legislators said they would discuss a rehabilitation package.
Mayor Bhattacharya said the government was considering a move to replace the hand-pulled rickshaws with cycle or motor ones. He did not, however, say whether the government would provide the rickshaw runners with the new vehicles.
In 1996 the state government outlawed hand-pulled rickshaws, only to back down in the face of huge protests. A year later, it offered rickshaw pullers 7,000 rupees to turn in their vehicles but had no takers.