#TIL: Auto-Rickshaw: A marriage of innovations in post-independence India

By Divya Chirayath

NK Firodia showing the auto-rickshaw to Jawaharlal Nehru, Source: Force Motors

The auto-rickshaw is the first instance of product innovation in independent India.

A few months before India gained independence, the deplorable condition of India’s rickshaw pullers was raised by some leaders in a Bombay Legislative Assembly session in 1947. Morarji Desai, the then Home Minister for Bombay, strongly recommended the discontinuation of hand-pulled rickshaws.

Navalmal Firodia, an industrialist and a freedom fighter, who was exploring ways to motorise the rickshaw, spotted ads of three-wheeled vehicles manufactured by Piaggio, used to deliver goods to bakeries and florists in Europe. His company, Jaya Hind Industries, partnered with Bachhraj Trading Corporation to design an amalgamation of the hand-drawn rickshaw and the motorised two-wheeler. In a 1948 Congress session in Bombay, the prototype was presented before Jawahar Lal Nehru, who took his first ride on the vehicle and was impressed. After trials with the state transport department, the auto-rickshaw received formal permission to ply as an approved form of public conveyance. In a book about Firodia’s life, his son mentions that one event where auto-rickshaws gained mass appeal was when Aga Khan visited the Aga Khan Palace in Pune. It used to take two hours for devotees to reach the Palace from the Pune railway station in tongas, whereas the new auto-rickshaws covered the distance in 40 minutes, promoting them as a popular mode of last-mile connectivity. Since its humble beginnings, the auto-rickshaw has continued to grow, with 4–16 auto-rickshaws per 1000 people in Indian Tier-I & II cities.

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