Cycling enthusiasts, activists, environmentalists and others have expressed their outrage over a decision by the police department in Kolkata, India to ban the use of bicycles in most thoroughfares of the teeming metropolis. Police officials claim the prohibition on bicycles was needed to thwart any potential terror attacks on the city and to relieve chronic congestion on its overcrowded streets.
“Cycling is banned on major thoroughfares of the city for two reasons,” said K. Hari Rajan, the assistant traffic commissioner of Kolkata police, according to The Telegraph newspaper. “To ensure that traffic flow is not disturbed by the mix of fast-moving vehicles and cycles, as Calcutta has no provision for dedicated cycling lanes. There are also security concerns as bicycles are often used to plant bombs.” City authorities also cite that "cycles slow down traffic and removing them will make the streets safer and traffic speedier.” According to reports, in Kolkata, the average traffic speed is 14-18 kilometers per hour (8.7 to 11 miles per hour), versus an average of 22 km/h (13.7 mph) for India as a whole.
But many are upset with the prohibition. Cycling organizations across India and even in neighboring Bangladesh have organized protests against the decision, according to a report in Times of India. Medha Patkar, a prominent Indian social activist, has asked Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the state of West Bengal, to rescind the bike ban, citing that it hurts the interests and livelihoods of the poor and working classes and will only worsen pollution. "We are stunned to know that the Kolkata Police… has passed an order to ban cycles, [hand-carts], [pull-carts], tricycles and other forms of non-motorized [road transportation] from 174 major and minor streets in Kolkata,” her letter read.
“The order is not only in violation of the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006 that encourages non-motorized forms of transport but [is] also an assault on the livelihoods of the working class people. Millions of poor and working class people in Kolkata are dependent on these forms of transport for earning an honest living and also [to] commute within the city… [Bicycles and other non-motorized 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.”
Patkar also cited data showing that Kolkata is the only major city in India where bicycle traffic surpasses auto traffic (amounting to some 2.5 million bike trips daily), suggesting a far greater dependence on bikes as a crucial form of transportation. The letter was co-signed by an array of activist groups from across India.
“The bicycle is a poor man’s vehicle. Throughout the day I have to be on the move on a bicycle for my job and I cannot afford anything else,” said Kolkata native Sushanta Chakrabarty to the Telegraph. Ajay Pal Singh Chabba wrote in Reset, an environmentalist news website, that most people who ride bicycles in and around Kolkata are “daily wage earners as well as people who can't afford even public transport.”
Environmentalists are also outraged, noting that big cities in Western Europe and North America are pushing for bike-friendly polices in order to alleviate pollution and highway congestion. S. M. Ghosh, another prominent environmentalist, praised the use of bicycles. “Bicycles are universally encouraged to counter environmental pollution. Instead of banning cycles, the administration should make arrangements for dedicated cycling paths,” Ghosh said. Indeed, according to Kolkata’s very own Scientific and Environmental Research Institute, Kolkata is already India’s most polluted city.
Ironically, Kolkata – a city of some 11 million people -- has far fewer private cars than cities like Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai, but its poor infrastructure (narrow and congested roads) means traffic is already unbearable, with bicycles making life difficult, even dangerous, for drivers. The city’s battered roads have to cope with a daily onslaught of not only cars, buses, motorcycles and bikes, but also various forms of rickshaws and tramcars. "There is just not enough space for all kind of vehicles," said Dilip Kumar Adak, deputy commissioner of the city's traffic police department, according to BBC. "It's not a blanket ban. People can still cycle on smaller streets."
BBC reported on the plight of a man named Raju Sapui who cycles every day to his employer’s home in Kolkata, where he works as a driver. He cannot afford his own automobile. "This [ban] is making my life very difficult,” he said. “Every time I get on my cycle I am scared that I will be fined as I have to break the law and go on some of the banned roads to get to work.”
The new laws are “crazy,” said Gautam Shroff, of an environmental group called Ride 2 Breathe. "Pollution is increasing every day here so we should be encouraging people to take up cycling. Instead we are punishing them for helping improve the environment,” he said. “If cyclists are a nuisance, so then are pedestrians, motorcycle riders and car drivers. Why does the government not take them off the roads?"
No less a figure that Nobel Prize laureate, structural biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan has also condemned Kolkata’s bike ban. In an editorial in the Kolkata Telegraph, he wrote that while cities like London, New York and Paris have “realized the errors of the past and are now encouraging cyclists by providing special bike lanes and routes,” Kolkata is going backwards. “The official excuse is that a mixed traffic is a danger to cyclists,” he wrote. “However, the solution is not to ban cyclists but to make the streets safer for them and to provide reasonable alternative routes for them.”
Ramakrishnan, who lives in Cambridge, England, and bikes every day, gushed that bicycles take up little space and many more of them can be accommodated on roads. “They are cheap, impose little wear and tear on the road, have a lower dependence on increasingly expensive foreign oil and do not contribute to the increasing pollution in Indian cities,” he noted. “The exercise they provide could help counter the huge increase in obesity and diabetes.”
He also postulated that the ban on bicycles may reflect the government’s contempt for the poor. “The prosperous classes [of India] have effectively seceded from the masses,” he said. “They live in their own private bubbles, never encountering public spaces let alone the public. They go from their home into their car from which they leave their gated compound, only to emerge in an equally private space, whether it is their place of work or their club, a restaurant or a friend’s home.”
Ramakrishnan proposed that instead of banning bikes, the Indian authorities promote cycling and other energy-efficient and clean transportation.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.