KARACHI: After spending a rough night on the road a few years ago, Imran Ghanchi, a physically challenged rickshaw driver, vowed not to drive again. His three-wheeler had run out of gas near West Wharf, and everyone he asked for a tow refused. He was stranded and because of his polio, walking to the nearest petrol station was not an option.
Today, however, the 32-year-old is back behind the steering wheel of a rickshaw, but this one is special thanks to the Network of Organisations Working for People with Disabilities, Pakistan. All of the controls are located at the tips of his fingers. The Pakistani-made Sazgar CNG rickshaw has only hand controls, which means that the gear, clutch and accelerator are all fixed to the steering handle and the brake is an elevated lever.
“This rickshaw has better features than the one I had,” explained Ghanchi. “I am encouraging other disabled people to become drivers.” He is buoyed by the backing of the network.
The vehicle is owned by the network, explains project manager Reem Khan. “The concept is to support disabled people as a part of the society through employment. We want them to have their own income, and not earn pity.”
The network has been donated twenty CNG rickshaws, out of which it has customized one, catering to Ghanchi’s requirement at a cost of Rs200,000. But it needs money to fix the rest of the fleet to other specifications.
All of the rickshaws are fitted with microphones, as the network will soon set up a call centre to coordinate between drivers and customers. Trakkar systems have been installed to help inform people at the office about their exact location. Each rickshaw also has a meter and they plan to fix the rates between Rs10 and Rs12 per kilometre.
Ghanchi was a perfect first experiment as he had worked on retrofitting his previous rickshaw and had helped customise 20 motorcycles with extra tyres for other men with special needs. It has been a long journey from being diagnosed with polio at two, to trying his hand at running a paan stall and attempting to earn a living as a plumber.
There is no total figure of how many people are living with polio in Pakistan. Dr Iqbal Memon, who has been associated with the polio drive since 1984, said that he estimated it was 1.2 million if they started counting 25 years before the vaccinations started and the number of people who were diagnosed but have recovered.
As Ghanchi smoothly test drives his new wheels on the streets of Clifton, there appears to be no difference between him and other rickshaw drivers. It is only when he alights that it becomes clear that he is a person with special needs. “When people ask me how I can drive as a ‘maazoor’, I tell them put me up against any top driver to compare.”
It has taken some time to get used to the new settings, but the network enlisted the help of a trainer, Mustafa. “I want to remove the fear from other disabled men, who think they can’t drive,” he told The Express Tribune. “I want them to know that they can do anything!”
It takes a month to train the drivers, so they can ferry anyone from Baldia to Ranchore Line, but there is the small glitch of trying to acquire a licence. “Licencing officials had refused to grant the permit and said it was impossible,” Ghanchi said. He persisted, however, armed with medical statements that certified that he had complete control of his upper body and his eyesight and hearing were not impaired. It took a week to get a learner’s licence then.
Now, the network hopes that the public will respond. Once the service is launched, Reem Khan is targeting students. “Youngsters are more accommodating than others,” she said. “It would be nice if they travelled in rickshaws and helped make these people a part of our society.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2012.