Pimp My Rickshaw: India's Drivers Pump Up The Glam

You know you want one: rickshaw seat covers emblazoned with Bollywood stars. It's just one way New Delhi rickshaw drivers are trying to outdo each other in the battle for passengers.

You know you want one: rickshaw seat covers emblazoned with Bollywood stars. It's just one way New Delhi rickshaw drivers are trying to outdo each other in the battle for passengers. Elliot Hannon for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elliot Hannon for NPR

Dashboard statues of glow-in-the-dark Hindu gods, hubcaps painted like soccer balls and seat covers adorned with Bollywood stars — all this and more rickshaw bling is all the rage in India.

The motorized three-wheeled buggies are a fixture on India's crowded city streets, scooting in and out of traffic, picking up and dropping off passengers.

The three-wheeled buggies — a kind of shared taxi — are the most convenient and cheapest way to get around in India. Here, rickshaws are fixed up in New Delhi, India's capital. i i

The three-wheeled buggies — a kind of shared taxi — are the most convenient and cheapest way to get around in India. Here, rickshaws are fixed up in New Delhi, India's capital. Elliot Hannon for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elliot Hannon for NPR
The three-wheeled buggies — a kind of shared taxi — are the most convenient and cheapest way to get around in India. Here, rickshaws are fixed up in New Delhi, India's capital.

The three-wheeled buggies — a kind of shared taxi — are the most convenient and cheapest way to get around in India. Here, rickshaws are fixed up in New Delhi, India's capital.

Elliot Hannon for NPR

In New Delhi alone, there are some 50,000 of these vehicles. And that number is set to double as the city recently lifted a decades-long cap on the number of rickshaws allowed on the road.

With more rickshaws, competition for passengers is expected to be fierce. As a result, some owners are already looking to glam up their rides.

Mind you, riding in the back of a rickshaw is anything but a glamorous way to travel. In fact, it feels like being in a bumper car with a lawn mower engine.

But in India's capital, these shared taxis are the cheapest and most convenient way to get around.

The small, three-wheel buggies don't have any windows — or doors, for that matter. And the motor snarls just inches beneath the back seat. Most of the rickshaws are falling apart, with rusting exteriors and torn bench seats.

But at one of Delhi's rickshaw repair markets, some 200 specialty shops are working to change that. Among them is Mohammed Arif's small corner stall, where he cuts out fabric and sits down at his electric sewing machine.

Arif specializes in custom-made interiors. The shiny red bench seat he's working on looks like it's out of a 1950s diner. But his most popular seat covers are blown up glamour shots of Bollywood movie stars that cover the entire back seat.

"Most of the work I get is through word of mouth, because a rickshaw goes all over the city," he says. "So people ask customers, 'Where did you get this seat?' And people come to me."

For a driver who wants more, across from Arif's shop there is a lighting specialist who will cover his rickshaw in colorful track lighting until it lights up like a Christmas tree.

Mohammed Arif makes custom rickshaw seat covers at a market in Delhi that serves as a one-stop shop for the city's rickshaw drivers. i i

Mohammed Arif makes custom rickshaw seat covers at a market in Delhi that serves as a one-stop shop for the city's rickshaw drivers. Elliot Hannon for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elliot Hannon for NPR
Mohammed Arif makes custom rickshaw seat covers at a market in Delhi that serves as a one-stop shop for the city's rickshaw drivers.

Mohammed Arif makes custom rickshaw seat covers at a market in Delhi that serves as a one-stop shop for the city's rickshaw drivers.

Elliot Hannon for NPR

In the next stall, a stereo specialist delicately repairs a broken radio he's turned inside out. Behind him are stacks of speakers and stereos that he tailors for rickshaws.

For rickshaw drivers, this market is a one-stop shop. Driver Mohammed Sahil likes to come here and look for the latest gadgets.

"Decorating my rickshaw isn't just a business investment, it's also my passion," he says. "I work 10 hours a day, six days a week in my rickshaw, so it's worth me spending the money."

And it can be an expensive business: Some drivers spend hundreds of dollars glamorizing their humble vehicles.

Sahil beams with pride as he leans over to click on his favorite purchase: a gleaming new stereo — with a remote control.

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