In Kolkata,outrage follows a ban on cycles,which millions use every day.
VIP Road,as its name suggests,is one of Kolkatas most important arteries. It connects the airport to the city centre and is a commuters nightmare through the day. But early in the morning,when the city is stirring itself awake,the apocalyptic honking gives way to the good humour of morning walkers and the tinkling of cycle bells. The cycles are manoeuvered by groups of determined women in cotton saris,who seem to have the magical ability to carry conversations even while on the road. Shefali Biswas and Bandana Das,who travel 8-10 km every day from the interiors of Rajarhat,on the eastern fringes of the city,to fulfill their duties as domestic helps in different neighbourhoods,are among them. I have been cycling to work for the past five years and my cycle is a boon to me. If we were to take public transport,we would have to change two buses and spend at least Rs 10 every day. We would have to leave home even earlier,because buses are few and far between. We leave at 5.30 am anyway, says Bandana,who is in her mid-thirties.
The morning commute is set to get more difficult for Bandana,Shefali and thousands like them. The Kolkata Police has issued a ban on cycles and non-motorised transport in 174 thoroughfares of the city. Its not exactly a blanket ban,but the details are quite bizarre. On certain roads,such as James Long Sarani and Diamond Harbour Road,cycles will be allowed from 2-3 pm and from 11pm-6 am. On the arterial CIT Road,cycles will be allowed between midnight and 6 am,denying access to domestic helps,newspaper vendors and milkmen,when they need to use the road the most. Cycling will,however,be allowed in Salt Lake and Rajarhat,which are inhabited by the relatively affluent.
The incredulous anger at the ban was in evidence last week at central Kolkata,where cyclists,rickshaw-pullers,milkmen and newspaper vendors came together to protest the ban,and to argue the case for the popular mode of transport through posters,street plays and folk music. Gautam Shroff,a spokesperson of local cycling group Ride 2 Breathe,which counts environmentally conscious and urbane Kolkatans among its members,argued that cycling is essential for urban living. Cities across the world have embraced cycling as the answer to the problem of urban transport. In fact,in many cities,private vehicles are banned in certain areas and only cycles allowed. I fail to see the logic behind banning cycles to ease traffic in Kolkata, he said.
Govind Yadav,a milkman from north Kolkata at the protest,held a placard saying,We want cycles back. Yadav was there to represent thousands of doodhwallahs who clank their way across Kolkata with aluminium milkcans attached to their cycles. Yadav,who delivers milk in areas such as Moulali and Padmapukur,has to use the CIT Road to make his rounds. I cant read what the placard says,but I am here for a reason. A ban on cycles wont affect educated people like you,but its a kick in the stomach for us. How am I supposed to deliver milk without my cycle? How am I supposed to earn my living? he asked. Rough estimates suggest that the ban would affect the livelihood of roughly 10 lakh people in the city. Newspaper delivery boys,hand cart drivers,milkmen,all of them will be rendered jobless. How can such a ban be justified? I am not even going into the environmental aspect of it, says Ekta Kothari Jaju of Switch On,an NGO.
Cycles have been an eyesore for the Kolkata Police for years together. In 2009,it issued a ban on cycles which was eventually junked. Among the reasons the city police had cited then was that cycles could be used to plant bombs. The current ban is only concerned with traffic concerns. Bicycles and other non-motorised vehicles put great pressure on the city’s roads, said DC (traffic) Dilip Adak.
Traffic crawls on Kolkata’s narrow roads,it is true. According to a Ministry of Urban development report,the average speed on the citys roads is 14-18 km/hour versus an average of 22 km/h for India as a whole. But to blame that on cycles and hand-drawn vehicles (which only ply in certain parts of the city) seems to be throwing out the baby with the bath water. Authorities should realise that there are other ways to salvage the situation. Banning cycles will in no way make traffic move faster, says Shroff.
A city like Kolkata,which is home to a large chunk of migrants (a third of its population comprises fresh migrants,according to the 2011 census),who form a substantial section of its working class,cannot afford such a ban. According to a 2008 Ministry of Urban Development report,trips by cycles in Kolkata (11 per cent) outnumber trips by cars (8 per cent): carpenters,masons,milkmen,newspaper vendors,office clerks and courier delivery boys make 25 lakh cycle trips every day, says Jaju. In an open letter to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee,activist Medha Patkar said the order is not only in violation of the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006 but an assault on the livelihoods of the working class people. [Bicycles and other non-motorised vehicles are socially inclusive,directly support livelihoods,inexpensive,take up much less space and are good for the environment and health and least likely to cause [traffic jams and accidents, she wrote.
The argument might go on in terms of passionate online petitions,harried dharnas and erudite editorials,but for Sambhu Nath Tiwari,a representative of West Bengal Akhbar Bikreta Samity,an association of news vendors,the streets of Kolkata have become more hostile than they used to be. Waking up at the crack of dawn,cycling his way from his Rajabazar home to the nearby Sealdah,a pick-up point for newspaper vendors,is something he looks back at fondly. Its not that we didnt have run-ins with cops earlier. But then things were friendlier. We earn about Rs 100 a day and if we broke some rules,we had to pay them Rs 20 or so and got away with it, says Tiwari. But now being spotted means paying fines. We are in constant fear of being hauled up by the police. We feel like we are smugglers or something. I dont know why we need to feel like this,we are just working hard like any of you to earn a living, he says.
*Premankur Biswas is a freelance journalist in Kolkata