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The bye-cycle diaries of Kolkata

October 14, 2013 15:14 IST

Avid cyclists, newspaper vendors, milkmen and courier boys have come together to protest against West Bengal government's ban on cycles from city roads, reports Debaleena Sengupta.

A strange sight greeted the residents of Kolkata. A few hundred people from all walks of life were seen in front of Victoria House near Esplanade holding up cycle tyres. Though the city is no stranger to political bandhs and protests, this time around the scene was a little different. This set of people had come together for a unique apolitical protest, called 'Chakra satyagraha, against the recent blanket ban on non-motorised vehicles by the West Bengal government.

"The ban, besides disrupting a healthy habit that people like me have nurtured for years, also affects the livelihood of many," says Supratim Pal, a passionate biker and campaigner, who used to cycle to work every day. "This violates the central government's National Urban Transport Policy, which talks about safeguarding the use of cheaper, non-motorised modes of transportation like cycling."

Pal and his fellow campaigners are busy garnering support to force the government to withdraw the ban. The campaign has already won the support of Greenpeace India and got a thousand likes on its Facebook page.

A bicycle is the sole mode of transport for hundreds of newspaper vendors, milkmen and courier boys as they zip through the city to deliver the goods. "How will they make the deliveries if their cycles are seized by the police?" asks Pal.

His views are shared by many, including Vinod Gupta, a newspaper vendor in Park Street. "We are the worst affected by this ban, as we are regularly fined Rs 100-120 by the traffic police. This amount is too much for us," he says. Gupta too was seen at the Chakra satyagraha in the hope that his voice will reach Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

He believes that this ban goes against Banerjee's populist 'Maa Mati Manush' policies, as it is directly affecting the common man.

The ban on cycles, handcarts, pull carts, tricycles and other forms of non-motorised vehicles from major and minor roads in the city came about on May 29 this year when the Kolkata Traffic Police passed an order to this effect. The authorities explain it by saying that this will lessen congestion and smoothen traffic in the city.

The move is not new for Kolkata -- in 2008 the Left Front government too had issued a similar notification banning cycles on 38 major thoroughfares.

Interestingly, Banerjee had donated cycles to school girls in Murshidabad district, ahead of the Panchayat polls held in the state in July this year. But clearly, the erstwhile ban indicates that school children are not encouraged to take their cycles out on the city roads.

It's no wonder then that sales of bicycles in the city have been adversely affected. "It is deterring parents from buying cycles for their children. Sale of bikes meant for teenage kids has especially gone down," says Samar Ghosh, owner of a cycle shop, MM Ghosh, in central Kolkata's Chandni Chowk.

People like Mahesh Jajodia, member of the Bicycle Traders' Association, feel that the cycle connects with the poorest members of society. "People around the world are encouraged to use public transport and non-motorised vehicles to combat the risk of global warming. In such times, cycles are an effective mode of transport," he says.

However, Trinamool MP Derek O'Brien has been quick to dismiss such allegations. He writes in his blog: "For some years now, in keeping with the norm in major cities around the world, Kolkata has had cycling restrictions on heavy-traffic roads. This prevents accidents and saves lives, including cyclists, who would otherwise have had to negotiate tight traffic that allows neither them nor bigger vehicles much room for manoeuvre."

He further writes about the ongoing ban: "Recently, the government brought certain areas of Greater Kolkata, outside the core urban zone, within remit of the Kolkata Police. In line with its new mandate, Kolkata Police undertook a traffic survey of these new areas in Greater Kolkata and recommended cycling restrictions on some heavy-traffic streets."

For now it seems that Banerjee's long-cherished dream of transforming Kolkata into London doesn't include complying with the London Metropolitan authorities' efforts to encourage citizen cyclists. For instance, one can hire a cycle at the Barclays Cycle hire services for a sightseeing tour of London. Will one see such facilities in Kolkata in the near future? Going by the current ban, it seems like a distant dream.

Image: Labourers pull a cycle rickshaw loaded with bananas towards a market in Kolkata

Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

Debaleena Sengupta in Kolkata