Three decades ago, when the city corporation stopped issuing licence for rickshaws, there were around 80,000 of the peddled three-wheelers plying the city streets.
The overbearing concern for planners was that these slow vehicles were leading to bottlenecks on the streets – so, removing them would solve the problem of traffic jams.
Thirty years down the line, however, the number of rickshaws in the city has ballooned to 8-9 lakh, and the city has become even more clogged.
The thing that has really changed during this period is the nature of rickshaw business as various organisations have mushroomed with the backing of the parties in power and have been running illegal rickshaw businesses.
In 2001, in a meeting with rickshaw owners, the then chief executive officer of the city corporation AKM Nurul Huda decided to legalise the existing illegal rickshaws.
A decision was also made not to give route permit to any new rickshaws, and to shut down rickshaw making factories.
Along with this, they decided to issue licences to rickshaw-pullers.
But no decision has come into reality except 18,000 rickshaw-puller licences in 2008 during the period of army-backed caretaker government.
Taking the opportunity of the city corporation's indifference, a number of groups have formed gradually as an alternative authority for issuing route permits.
There is a lot of money involved in issuing illegal route permits.
How rickshaws increased in the city
In 1986, when the city corporation stopped issuing licences, the owners started to use their their rickshaws by bribing the traffic police.
After 2001, some local leaders in collaboration with some city corporation officials started to provide duplicate licences for Tk5,000 to Tk7,000.
A rickshaw owner in the Modhubagh area told The Business Standard on condition of anonymity that he had started his business in 1992 with 30 rickshaws.
From 1992 to 2001, he operated the rickshaws by bribing the traffic police Tk20 to Tk30 per day each.
Later in 2002-2003, he got duplicate licences for Tk5,000 to Tk6,000 each.
Over the years, the price of a duplicate licence has increased to Tk12,000 to Tk15,000, he added.
Now there are 10 to 15 duplicate licences against one licence issued by the city corporation, said Insur Ali, general secretary of Bangladesh Rickshaw-Van Shromik League.
Without having any activities of the city corporation, first Bangladesh Rickshaw-Van Shromik League started to issue number plates in 2002.
Up to 2018, they have issued 43,000 number plates.
"If the city corporation starts issuing licences and legalises the existing rickshaws, we will stop issuing number plates," said Insur Ali.
Along with this, a syndicate of some 25 different vested interest groups has risen gradually. It provides number plates as a route permit.
Some of the unauthorised vested interest groups are: Bangladesh Rickshaw and Van Malik Federation, Bangladesh Rickshaw-Van Shromik League, Bangladesh Rickshaw Malik Shromik League, Bangladesh Muktijoddha Somonnoy Parishad, Dhaka City Muktijoddha Rickshaw Van Malik Kallyan Society, Bangladesh Muktijoddha Rickshaw Unnayan Society, Bangladesh Rickshaw Van Malik Shromik Songram Parishad and so on.
Each group issued 30,000 licences on an average.
Besides, there are around 150,000 battery-run rickshaws plying the streets of the city.
Some local political leaders in collaboration with the police allow the battery-run rickshaws on the roads.
Illegal rickshaw: about Tk1,000 crore business
Apart from the 80,000 rickshaws licensed by the city corporation, the rest are being controlled by the syndicate of 25 unauthorised groups.
During 2002-2008, the syndicate charged Tk5,000 to Tk6,000 for each duplicate licence or number plate.
Over the years, the price has risen to Tk12,000 to Tk15,000.
But the rate varies with the drives of the city corporations. When the city corporation initiates any drives, the rate rises to Tk15,000 for each duplicate licence or number plate.
In this way the syndicate earned more than Tk800 crore over the years.
Besides, the syndicate charges an average of Tk500 for each rickshaw as a renewal fee of the number plate.
In this process, they earn Tk40-45 crore annually.
For the 150,000 battery-run rickshaws in the city, the owners have to pay Tk1,000 monthly to local political leaders and the police.
The vested interest groups earn Tk180 crore annually through this.
On top of this, a rickshaw owner has to pay Tk20 annually to the Bangladesh Rickshaw O Van Malik Federation as security fees.
For the 9 lakh rickshaws, the amount comes to about Tk2 crore.
Firoz Iqbal, who owns 30 rickshaws, started his business seven years ago. While talking to The Business Standard, he said he gets number plates from the Jatiya Rickshaw Van Shromik League for Tk12,000 each.
He has also taken number plates from the Bangladesh Rickshaw O Van Malik Federation for Tk20 each year so that his rickshaws don't get stolen.
Ahad Ali, a rickshaw owner, said a rickshaw without a number plate is more likely to be stolen. The syndicate then mediates between the perpetrators and owners, pocketing a share of the money thus extorted.
By having number plates from the Bangladesh Rickshaw O Van Malik Federation, the rickshaws can run in the city without any bother, he added.
City corporation indifferent and losing revenue
After stopping the issuing of licences in 1986, the city corporations took initiatives in 2001 to resume issuing licences.
But it has not issued any licences for a long time.
They only renew licences for 80,000 rickshaws every two years for Tk650 each.
But the revenue from the other eight lakh rickshaws goes to the pocket of the vested interest groups.
"In 2016, we offered to give Tk186,000,000 as licence fee to the city corporations for our 43,000 rickshaws and vans," said Abul Hossen, president of Bangladesh Rickshaw Van Malik Shromik Songram Parishad.
"But the city corporations till today has still not given any decision on whether they will legalise our rickshaws and vans," he added.