New Delhi, India — An unusual commotion outside her school in 2005 brought Sr. Celine Arikkat out of her principal's office. What the Franciscan Clarist Congregation nun saw appalled her. Some people were thrashing a cycle-rickshaw taxi driver while a crowd, including the man's friends, watched. No one dared to intervene or help the profusely bleeding man, whose only fault was to ask for his fare.
The Catholic nun decided then and there to do something for the hapless people, mostly Hindus and a few Muslims, who operate cycle rickshaws known in the West as pedicabs.
Twelve years later, taxi drivers ply their trade with dignity and civility in the same area — Noida, a satellite town of India's capital, New Delhi. Now none, not even police officers, dares to harass or refuse them a fare.
Indian Mission Society Fr. Joson Tharakan John, who has worked with Arikkat among the rickshaw pullers for the last 10 years, says others now try to replicate her "very impressive" work.
"I wanted to empower them, form a union, as individually they could not fight for their rights," she said. But it was not easy to bring them together because they came from different Indian states and backgrounds.
As someone who does not give up easily, the nun worked with the rickshaw pullers to provide them a better life. Most men were caught in a debt trap as they plied rented vehicles that ate up most of their earnings. A day's work can bring in 150 to 350 rupees, or $2.32 to $5.42, depending on the season, but rickshaw rental costs a third or more of that sum.
To earn the upper end, rickshaw pullers have to work 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. without a lengthy break, says Ashok Kumar, one of the taxi cyclists. Another worker, Juleh Lal Rajasthani, says that at the end of the day "our knees give way, our backs and muscles protest as we sit for hours in the uncomfortable position on a hard-backed seat," a condition that drives some of them to rely on alcohol.
Arikkat decided to buy them rickshaws to help them avoid debt and start saving for the future. She asked a man who supplies books to her school to sponsor a rickshaw, which in 2005 cost 4,600 rupees, about $100 then.
On Oct. 4, 2005, the first rickshaw was presented on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the Clarists. All rickshaw pullers in the neighborhood were invited to witness it. "Only 18 came for the first meeting. Others stayed away, suspecting it to be a proselytization trap," Arikkat told Global Sisters Report.
At the next meeting, 11 school textbook publishers each gave her 5,000 rupees (worth $110 at the time) to buy more rickshaws. "Ever since, there has been no lack of sponsors, and the ranks of rickshaw pullers also swelled," the nun added.
She gives away rickshaws on one condition: The drivers have to pay back the money in monthly installments. With the funds collected, more rickshaws are bought. New benefactors also come forward, enough so that she now buys rickshaws every month.
"God loves you" is written on the back of all vehicles supplied by the nun.
A social agenda
Arikkat has become the source of a social revolution among the pedicab drivers, who, John says, are rough, crude and "tough to handle."
Arikkat says initially she found the rickshaw drivers to be wayward men who lied, cheated, drank and gambled. "They indulged in everything wrong. Getting them to behave properly was a challenging task," she said.
Kumar, a reformed rickshaw puller in his 50s, comes from the eastern Indian state of Bihar. He says he stopped worrying about his children's education after he received a rickshaw from the nun a few years ago. He now saves at least 1,000 rupees ($15.50) a month. "I will use it to educate my three children," Kumar said.
Earlier, he had driven a rented vehicle and could hardly feed his family. He earned about 350 rupees a day but the rent was 100 rupees. Frustrated, he took to drinking.
Similarly, his friend, Abdul Jabbar, a Muslim, operated a rented rickshaw for 20 years and paid many times its price in rent. Arikkat helped Jabbar escape the rickshaw-renting mafia as well as his habit of chewing tobacco.
Arikkat says she helps the men regulate their otherwise chaotic lives. "Regular meetings are held where they are given some pep talks on how to live as honest and good citizens," she said.
An estimated 2 million cycle rickshaws ply the roads in India. In Delhi and its satellite towns, more than 1 million migrants pedal rickshaws for a living. Most have no shelter and sleep on pavement and in parks or curl up in their rickshaws for the night.
The nun says that failing agriculture, due to water scarcity, and mounting debt drive villagers to cities where they have neither identity cards nor addresses. "So the best possible way for them to survive is to ply a rickshaw," she said.
Kumar admits that they "had little understanding of things" before they met the sister. "Regular attendance at the meetings made us informed persons. Now we are concerned about our families and realize the importance of educating our children."
Jabbar says they no more indulge in drinking or gambling because they are cautious around Arikkat, a diminutive woman. "Why talk of us? Even policeman are scared of Sister," Jabbar said. "Earlier, they used to hit us for no apparent reason and extort money. Now, if they see 'God loves you' on our rickshaw, they don't come anywhere near us."
The rickshaw drivers call Arikkat "Sherni," which means lioness, because she keeps a close eye on them in Noida.
"I drop in at their homes at any time. So they are wary of me," said Arikkat, who just marked 50 years as a nun.
She says she organizes meetings for the men on the first Tuesday of every month.
"We give them tea and snacks and at times T-shirts or blankets, depending on the sponsors," she said.
Teachers from the two schools the congregation manages in Noida compete with each other to sponsor those meetings, she says. Each meeting costs about 3,000 rupees, or $45.
Every Oct. 4, on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, she presents warm clothes along with the rickshaws. In 2016, she distributed 5 kilos — 11 pounds — of wheat flour per family to 400 people as a Christmas gift.
She says donations are no problem. One day, she mentioned to a doctor about her mission among the rickshaw pullers. He immediately took out 8,300 rupees, the current price of a rickshaw. A parishioner recently gave money for a rickshaw on his daughter's birthday.
As of the end of May, she has provided 432 rickshaws to the migrant cabbies of Noida.
Ministry beyond the rickshaws
Arikkat has expanded her activities. Once, she found a rickshaw puller and his wife quarreling because they were childless. She told them to believe in God's intervention. A few days later, she met a woman who had come to a clinic to abort her child.
"I requested her to give birth to the child and that I would bear all the expenses and she agreed. When a boy was born, she did not even want to look at the child. But the childless couple was just too happy to take home the bundle of joy," she recalled. The boy is currently a second-grader in the nun's school.
The list of those wanting to express gratefulness to the nun is endless.
Ranjan Jha of Bihar says he owes his good health to the sister. He said he had stopped pulling the rickshaw because of health problems. "I went to the sister and she took me to a dispensary and got me free medicines."
Arikkat is quite uncompromising when it comes to educating children.
"My children were ragpickers, but the sister forced me to send them to school," said Suresh Kumar. His children are in the Assisi Convent School, where he had to pay only the initial fees. "Thereafter, the fee and school uniforms were provided by the sister," he said.
Arikkat says she pushes the rickshaw drivers to send their children to school. "We give them admission. They have to give just a one-time nominal fee. If they are not able to pay that, too, I give it to them," she said.
The nun is also a volunteer with Prison Ministry India, a church movement to bring solace to prisoners.
Arikkat teaches values to the prisoners and also counsels them. She has so far gotten bail for 52 prisoners, a majority of whom were incarcerated on insubstantial grounds. She talks to the jail superintendents and gets the fines reduced, then persuades her provincial to pay the surety amount for poorer prisoners.
"I started this in the Mercy Year, but I told my provincial the Mercy Year will not end for the prisoners," she says.
The nun's work among the migrants has earned her many awards. She is among the few Indians to win the Paul Harris Fellow award from the Rotary Foundation. She has also twice won the Sahyadri Navratna (nine jewels) award given by nongovernmental organizations in Delhi for espousing social causes.
"I don't give much to awards. I am doing God's work and he will reward me," said Arikkat, the eighth among nine children of an affluent family in Kerala, southern India. She says when she was a child she wanted to help impoverished people.
"I was known for my boldness. When I decided to join the convent, my father said no convent walls were strong enough to hold me. So he left five acres of land as my share so that I could be married off when I return," she joked.
The nun, who has served as principal in many schools, says not everyone can do charitable works. "You need a compassionate heart and the grace of God," she said.
[Rita Joseph is a New Delhi-based journalist who has worked for the nationwide Press Trust of India and as features editor of The Statesman, an English-language daily newspaper in India. She writes for media outlets in India and the United States, including Matters India, a news portal that collaborates with GSR and focuses on religious and social issues.]