SammaaN: Changing India, one rickshaw at a time

Posted By: Pooja Ganeriwala|Dated: February 9, 2012

India’s economy may be thriving, but its people are not. And there is more to worry about than just poverty. The biggest problem staring Indians in the face is an identity crisis – the inability to prove who they are. Even though the government spends a fortune each year trying to make welfare available to the masses, there are no channels to provide proper access.

Sammaan The Changing India

There is hope in the UID scheme that is currently underway. But as the ambitious scheme gets ready to roll out its 200th million member, the problem of ‘too many’ – which has long been the biggest thorn in India’s side – haunts the nation once again. Smaller measures to acknowledge the contributors to the economy’s growth are lacking, but perhaps the only way to go.

This is a call that might be wasted in the upper echelons, but resounds amongst the uber-educated, socially aware youth of today.

Meet Irfan Alam, a 29 year old social entrepreneur from Bihar who has made it his calling to uplift the lives of a long-suppressed community – cycle rickshaw-pullers! In an age where the term MBA has been reduced to a mere process in the final goal towards the attainment of a seven-figure salary, Irfan, who has studied at prestigious establishments such as the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and Columbia University, New York, is trying to bring structure to an otherwise ignored industry. Irfan’s efforts are aimed at facilitating the process of making rickshaw operators ‘full economic citizens’ by building channels for essential services such as banking and individual access to credit and healthcare.

Incorporated as the organized establishment called the SammaaN Foundation, Irfan’s idea was conceived after taking into account that the seemingly small rickshaw sector has almost 10 million people engaged with it in some way and that, on average, each driver supports a family of at least five. That amounts to a relatively huge 5% of India’s total population, contributing to nearly 30% of total urban transport earnings.

Yet over 90% of these drivers are illiterate and poor farm workers who have migrated to cities for want of employment. They are unable to ‘purchase’ the rickshaw: they are hired for a daily rent of Rs. 30-40, thus leaving the drivers with a pittance for themselves. 100% of them reported feeling financially and socially excluded.

Recognizing them as significant contributors to the growth of the Indian economy, SammaaN’s aim was propelled towards systematizing the community by bringing them under one roof and modernising the sector with small but innovative changes.

Sammaan The Changing India Campaign

Banks were roped in to provide micro-finance to the rickshaw-pullers, thus able to reduce their daily rent by almost 50%. In order to make it easier for them to supplement their income, their rickshaws were re-designed:

  • As ‘a mobile small shop’ that stocks newspapers, mineral water, juice, mobile recharge coupons, bill collection, and other value added services that would make the journey more comfortable for a passenger.
  • To include commercial posters and thus become advertising mediums. The revenues through the same are split equally between SammaaN Foundation and the rickshaw-puller.

Through an auxiliary increase in income, the rickshaw-pullers have been able to pay off bank loans in installments, claiming ownership of the rickshaw. Additionally, SammaaN provides them with free uniforms, a saving bank account for each one, free accidental and health insurance worth up to Rs 1 lakh for the driver, their family, as well as for the passengers. Free evening classes under a program called SammaaNGyaanare are organized for the drivers and their children and occupational skills are imparted through training to their wives.

SammaaN has also recently started a health vertical called “SammaaNSwasthya” which caters to the health needs of rickshaw pullers and unorganized workers by running mobile medical units and organizing regular health check-up camps.

Irfan has received a fair share of attention for his work. Apart from winning numerous national and international awards as social entrepreneur, he holds the distinction of being invited to the Entrepreneurship Summit, hosted by US President Barack Obama at Washington DC in April 2010.

Irfan started off with 100 such rickshaws in 2007. Today, over five lakh rickshaw-pullers from across the country are registered with SammaaN in different capacities as potential beneficiaries. Continuing at the pace that it is today, the business model has the potential to transform the lives of all 10 million rickshaw operators in the country.

This is all due to one individual’s vision, a young man who chose as his profession not a fancy investment banking portfolio but the ability to enable a suppressed community to participate actively in the economy as consumers and to enjoy equal opportunities.

About the Author

Pooja Ganeriwala

Pooja Ganeriwala is a freelance blogger and columnist based in New York.

She writes on education, entrepreneurship, new media and healthcare, amongst other subjects and has published articles for The Times of India, The Economic Times, The United Nations, Femina, etc. She can be reached at

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group. 

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  • Rajeesh.rajagopalan Nair

    Well written

  • Simrin

    How many times do you see passengers get in and out of rickshaws without greeting the rickshaw wallah as a person?  this is an important step towards their cultural/social inclusion.  Amazing work!

  • Srinivas gubbala

    Good work . The rickshaw wallah in our area are are suffering with the competition from autos(share autos) .. please work on that too… if i get any idea , i will share here .

    Some where i have seen luggage  rickshaws are using old unused bike engines 

  • Chitrasen Parida

    good work Irfan…….

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