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Technology, History, and Travel

Category: Transportation (Page 2 of 5)

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The cycle-taxis of Syonan

On a recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia to attend the Society for the History of Technology’s first meeting in Asia, I came across a curious example of local technology, the trishaw. At first glance, trishaws looked like cycle rickshaws, common in India, but on closer inspection they turned out to be an ordinary bicycle with a sidecar clamped to one side.

Trishaw in the History and Ethnography Museum, Malacca.

Trishaw in the History and Ethnography Museum, Malacca.

The trishaws I saw were not regular taxis. Instead, like the pedicabs of New York City, they offered joy rides to tourists. In Singapore, I only saw a few forlorn trishaws parked opposite the Raffles Hotel, but in Malacca (Melaka) there were flocks of them congregating around the historic Dutch Square. The Singaporean trishaws were mostly unornamented, but the Malaccan ones were decked out elaborately. Most of the decorations featured children’s movie or TV characters, such as Doraemon, Minions, or the main characters of Frozen.

Trishaws at Dutch Square, Malacca.

Trishaws at Dutch Square, Malacca.

The history of trishaws in Southeast Asia began more than seventy years ago. According to C.M. Turnbull’s History of Singapore (Oxford, 1977), trishaws originated in World War II during the Japanese occupation of Syonan (“Light of the South,” the name given to Singapore by the Japanese). Singapore, an island state with few natural resources, had long been economically oriented toward the west. The Japanese occupation cut off Singapore’s western trade links, leading to severe resource shortages. Some enterprising Singaporeans found ways to create domestic import substitutes, such as banana-fiber ropes and bamboo paper. Trishaws were another such improvisation. Not only could they be readily adapted from existing bicycles, they also did not consume any gasoline, another scarce wartime commodity. After the end of the war, Singapore’s economy recovered, but trishaws continued to be used into the 1970s. More recently, they have made a comeback for tourists.

Riding the meter-gauge rails

Broad-gauge (left) and meter-gauge (right) trains at Jaipur Junction.

Broad-gauge (left) and meter-gauge (right) trains at Jaipur Junction.

When private British capital first started building railroads in India in the mid-nineteenth century, the lines were built in broad gauge. With a spacing between the rails of 5 ft 6 in, this was, and still is, the widest rail gauge in common use anywhere in the world. The colonial Government of India started to build their own rail lines in the 1870s. These public-sector railways were more cheaply built than their private counterparts, and they were made in meter gauge (3 ft 3 3/8 in).

Even after independence and the nationalization of the private railways, broad-gauge and meter-gauge lines continued to be developed in parallel with each other. Only in the 1990s did the Indian Railways start to convert meter-gauge lines to broad gauge, under Project Unigauge. Since then, large stretches of meter-gauge lines have been replaced by broad gauge.

Meter-gauge lines survive here and there. One such line runs between Jaipur Junction and Sikar, 107 km (66 mi) to the northwest. Meter gauge used to run all of the way to Churu, another fifty miles to the north, but that stretch has recently been closed for conversion to broad gauge. (The time table posted in Jaipur Junction station still says Churu on it, although the name has been whited out and replaced with Sikar.) Someday the Jaipur–Sikar line will also become broad gauge. But in the meantime, seven meter-gauge trains will continue to run back and forth between Jaipur and Sikar every day.

Since meter gauge won’t be around forever, I felt obliged to ride the Jaipur–Sikar train when I had the chance. A month ago, I rode one of these trains from Jaipur as far as Chomun, one-third of the way to Sikar. The meter-gauge tracks at Jaipur Junction station are on the north side of the broad-gauge lines, so the tracks don’t have to cross each other. I found a place where both gauges run side-by-side, showing the difference in size.

Comparison of meter gauge (left) and broad gauge (right).

Comparison of meter gauge (left) and broad gauge (right).

The meter-gauge train was smaller and, I dare say, cuter than the broad-gauge trains I am used to seeing. Inside, the coach was just wide enough for a bench seating four or five adults.

Meter-gauge locomotive of 52083 Jaipur-Sikar MG Pass train.

Meter-gauge locomotive of 52083 Jaipur-Sikar MG Pass train.

Meter-gauge luggage car.

Meter-gauge luggage car.

Panorama of a compartment in a meter-gauge train.

Panorama of a compartment in a meter-gauge train.

I sat in the coach just behind the diesel-electric locomotive, because that one was farthest along the platform and nobody else was in it at first. When the train left Jaipur station, only two other men were in my compartment. At the first stop, Dher ka Balaji, the compartment filled up. The train passed by Jaipur’s sprawl for a while, then it reached the open countryside. After several station stops that I didn’t see the name of, the train pulled into Chomun station, a nice little colonial Public Works Department structure.

The single platform of Chomun Samod station.

The single platform of Chomun Samod station.

Glimpse of the facade of Chomun Samod station.

Glimpse of the facade of Chomun Samod station.

At Chomun, my meter-gauge technological tourism came to an end. I returned to Jaipur by city bus.

Having ridden on a meter-gauge train, I can now appreciate how much the Indian Railways have changed since the days when the narrower gauge was more prevalent. The train I rode to Chomun just didn’t have the capacity of the much larger broad-gauge trains I have ridden in India.

Jugaad-spotting in eastern Rajasthan

A jugaad truck in a market town in Sawai Madhopur district, Rajasthan.

A jugaad truck in a market town in Sawai Madhopur district, Rajasthan.

The word “jugaad” has several meanings in the Hindi language. In some contexts, the word can mean informal or improvised repair of something. Another meaning of the word is the use of some object in a manner that the creators did not intend. When a mechanic uses shampoo in place of brake fluid, he is performing jugaad. When mustard oil cans are flattened out and shaped into the door of a hut, this too is jugaad.

In eastern Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, “jugaad” has an additional definition: trucks that are produced by local craftsmen in village and town workshops, not in factories.

Jugaads do not have automobile engines. Instead, they use pumps, which were originally designed to draw water out of borewells to irrigate crops. The designers of the pumps did not intend for their products to be used in automobiles. But just as these pumps can draw water out of wells, they can also drive a vehicle.

I recently got the chance to take a close look at one of these pumps in its natural habitat, when I visited some friends’ village near the border of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. My friends took me to their fields outside of the village and showed me their pump, which was situated in the corner of a wheatfield. The pump did not have a starter motor; it was started by a hand crank that was stashed under some bushes. Once the pump started running, it began to shoot out a stream of clear, cool ground-water. It also produced a foul-smelling cloud of diesel fumes.

In addition to the pump-engines, jugaads are made of other parts gathered from various sources, including wheels, a steering wheel, and a radiator. Jugaads usually do not have any headlights or signaling lights. They never have license plates or registration papers. Since they are unregistered, the government cannot collect taxes on them. But even though they are unregistered, the government is aware of them, and has made laws about them on a district by district basis. Unregistered vehicles are technically illegal, but several district governments have decided that since jugaads are important in the agrarian economy of the district, jugaad production and use shall continue unimpeded. In eastern Rajasthan’s Dausa, Karauli, and Sawai Madhopur districts, jugaads are a common sight. They are especially evident in towns where farmers use them to bring their crops to market.

In other districts, jugaads nowhere to be seen. I have heard that they were banned in Bharatpur district two or three years ago after a jugaad crashed into a school bus, killing several children. The district council then understandably decided to ban jugaads for safety reasons. Jugaads are also rare sights in Jaipur district, and I have never seen even a single jugaad in Jaipur city. A co-passenger on a bus from Bharatpur to Jaipur once told me that there are no jugaads in Jaipur because the city government has banned them since their pump-engines produce so much pollution. As interesting as I find jugaads, I am glad they are not in Jaipur. The city’s traffic is bad enough with all of its cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, and especially motorcycles, not to mention bicycles and camel-carts.

(For a more detailed analysis of the multiple meanings of “jugaad,” please see my post “The Mystique of Jugaad.”)

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