Sushanta Ghosh last rode a bicycle to work almost three decades back. In the absence of adequate public transport since lockdown was eased in most parts of the state, and to avoid crowded vehicles during the ongoing pandemic, the Belgachia resident has started pedalling to work in Lake Town in North 24 Parganas district since last week.
Nowadays, Ghosh steps out from home two hours earlier to cover the 20-plus km distance to his office. “Covid-19 cases are on the rise, and both Howrah as well as Kolkata are the most vulnerable districts. If I commute by bus every day, then I will surely get infected soon. So, I have decided to travel on my bicycle,” he said.
A few modes of public transport became operational after the lockdown relaxations came into effect earlier this month. However, the number of vehicles on the roads is highly insufficient. While taxis and ride-hailing services have a two-passenger limit, buses can take on as many commuters as their seating capacity. As a result, people are facing a harrowing time reaching their workplaces.
Biswajit Ganguly, 49, a resident of Konnagar in Hooghly district, used to take the local train to his office in Kolkata’s Beliaghata area. Now, he covers the 32-km distance on a cycle that his daughter had received for being a beneficiary of the state government’s “Sabuj Sathi” scheme.
“Train services have not resumed, and my daughter, who will appear for her Class 12 board exams, is not using her cycle as her school is closed now. It was lying idle at home, so I decided to use her bicycle,” he said.
A 47-year-old resident of Subhashgram in South 24 Parganas district, Sanjay Subba is also commuting to his office in Kolkata’s Park Street area on his daughter’s “Sabuj Sathi” cycle. “As trains are not running and buses are not easily available, so I have no other choice but to wheel my daughter’s cycle for 25 km,” he said.
This increase in cycling’s popularity has been visibly apparent in Kolkata, where cyclists are seen on the roads more than ever before. A traffic constable at a signal near Howrah railway station said, “Every day hundreds of cyclists are seen pedalling from Howrah district to Kolkata, and their number peaks between 9 am and 9.30 am. Many of them also take a moment to catch their breath on the Howrah Bridge. The flow of cyclists again reverses from Kolkata to Howrah district around 5 pm.”
Similar scenes are being witnessed in Garia and Joka in the city’s southern part. Cyclists from South 24 Parganas pass through these localities while entering the city. Pedallers from the suburban areas to Kolkata’s north, meanwhile, often take BT Road. Many of these cyclists carry an extra set of clothes in their backpacks, along with tiffin boxes.
“I live in Belur, and work as a driver in a Kankurgachi office. Usually, I take a train to reach the office. Now, I have bought a cycle for Rs 4,500 to cover the 20-km distance. It is exhausting, but gradually I will get habituated to it. I carry an extra set of shirts and trousers as my clothes get ruined due to sweat or rain during my journey,” said 35-year-old Dinesh Rajak.
With the number of cyclists hitting the road going up, Kolkata Police Commissioner Anuj Sharma has directed people to abide by traffic rules and one-way restrictions. The order is valid till July 30. Kolkata Police have allowed cyclists to use the city’s lanes and bylanes as the government notification said restrictions on cyclists would continue on arterial roads, flyovers, and a few other places.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also asked cyclists to follow traffic rules, saying, “I have asked the police to figure out the roads that can be used by cyclists, and will not be prone to accidents. I don’t want accidents. Also, cyclists have to ride safely, and be cautious.”
Though countless people cycle to work and return home by evening, many are not that fortunate. Bhanuram Naskar, a 65-year-old resident of Jaynagar in South 24 Parganas, works as a gardener in Garia. He said, “It is not possible to cover 45 km to go to work, and come back the same day. So, once I go, I return home after two days. I take a break for a day, and again go to work.”
Besides office-goers, there are people like 55-year-old Park Circus resident Azharuddin, who cannot earn a living without their cycles. Azharuddin used to work in a bag-stitching factory, which closed after lockdown was imposed. Now, he pedals to Howrah Bridge every day to sell seat covers. “Every day, I come here to sell seat covers. Today, I came with 70-80 covers, and sold almost all of them. I sell these for Rs 20-25 each,” he said.
Due to this spurt in the number of cyclists, business has picked up for cycle stores and repair shops. Cycle-shop owner Ashish Kumar Gupta said, “Our sales have increased almost 200 per cent than usual. A large number of customers are buying bicycles for going to work. Some of them are also buying for fitness purposes.”
Prashanta Das, an employee of a bicycle shop in Baguiati in North 24 Parganas, said, “Most of the customers are opting for cycles saying this is the cheapest and safest option available during the pandemic.”
Ganesh Mondol, a 49-year-old who runs a cycle repair shop, said, “I have been in this profession for almost 25 years. I have never seen a more hectic time than this, so much so that I have to skip my meals.”
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