A cycle satyagraha for a better, green Kolkata

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Spin your way to glory on the road instead of at the slimming point, where the bike stands static and is permanently fixed to the ground. Before the cycles completely disappear from the streets of Kolkata, the campaigners in favour of lifting the ban over them seem to beseech the city-dwellers with the above line.

Till date, we have witnessed many Indian states distributing free bicycles and laptops to innumerable school students and college-goers. Especially, chief ministers like Nitish Kumar (Bihar), Akhilesh Yadav (Uttar Pradesh), Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal) and Jayalalithaa (Tamil Nadu) have been the prominent faces behind this major allocation in the suburban belts and at district levels. Now how about making this initiative a little more people-friendly?
While the small towns are teeming with cycles, rickshaws, autos and two-wheelers, the big and metropolitan cities are abuzz with mostly motorised vehicles, like the buses, cars, trucks, lorries, scooters, motorcycles, et al. But what is it with the cycles whose fate is slapped with a ban! It won’t be long enough when a city street will be deprived of a breezy cycle-ride with its tinkling bells, if the proposed directive is put in place. Anticipating this misery on the fast lanes, the campaigners in favour of the cycles and other non-motorised vehicles join hands to ring in an extensive awareness drive and educate the masses about their utility.
To raise a voice of protest against its abolition and lend a fruition to this civic movement, Switch ON — a grassroots organisation committed to sustainability and equity, and Ride to Breathe — a group of passionate cyclists who cycle for health, environment, travel and explore the city, come together with a common pledge to save the City of Joy from taking a suicidal step. Their continuous fight for the cyclists’ and other non-motorised transport’s cause also find a strong support and solidarity in many civil society organisations like the Public Relations Society of India, Greenpeace, WWF Kolkata and Centre for Environment and Development.
A vehement cycle satyagraha was hosted last Sunday, September 8 morning, which saw an overwhelming turnout of hundreds of willing participants enthusiastically attending a cycle march from Kolkata’s Esplanade stretch to the city Press Club on the Mayo Road. This scheduled cycle satyagraha was a noble endeavour formulated to act against the proscription on cycles and NMT.
But how did this revolution begin? The germ of the story dates back to as far as the decade of 60s, wherein under the West Bengal Traffic regulation Act of 1965, the Kolkata police have barred bicylces from 174 thoroughfares, putting it as a blanket ban in effect. It includes cycles, cycle vans, handcarts, pull-carts and bakery vans. The above ban is an extension of the notification issued by the commissioner of police on August 11, 2008, which had restricted bicycles from plying or standing between 9 am and 7 pm on the 38 thoroughfares of the city.
Additional commissioner (traffic) of Calcutta police K. Hari Rajan cites two specific reasons for enforcing the blanket ban. He suggests that “cycling is forbidden in the major arteries and highways only to ensure that traffic flow is not hampered by the mix of fast-moving vehicles and cycles which often create an undue congestion on roads. Plus, Calcutta as a city has no separate provision for cycling tracks alone. Secondly, there are also vital security concerns involved with the cycles as they are being widely used to plant bombs as has been the case in a spree of terror-attacks perpetrated in the recent years.” Countering this reason, Ekta Kothari from Switch ON insists that “the average speed of traffic in Kolkata varies between 14-18 km/hour. So, a cycle can conveniently match that pace, if not beat it. On that note, our argument siding with the need for conceptualising separate cycle lanes justifiably comes to the fore. Hence, the debate that cycles may clog or choke the roads is definitely ruled out. Rather, it can help an individual travel faster!”
However, people from all walks of life inhaling the same fetid air, getting stuck amidst the long beelines of traffic jams while commuting daily and shelling out a hefty purse for the recurrent petrol-price hikes have connected on a consensual plank to combat against the blanket ban which sounds like a death-knell for a three-century old historical city.
“Why can’t we develop a walk-in zone right at the heart of the city centre? We are busy building large flyovers these days. If that aerial route costs the city-coffers a fortune, constructing a cycle-lane or a track or a narrow roadstrip for the purpose will be exceedingly less in comparison. One can even easily mark the lane by simply drawing lines with coloured chalks,” volunteers Neil Law, Co-founder of Right to Breathe.
Many livelihoods are dependent on cycles. From petty traders and suppliers to carpenters and masons, from the milk man and newspaper vendors to office clerks and courier delivery boys — cycles are an affordable option for the middle-and-lower-middle classes in terms of daily communication.
Kolkata is the only metropolitan city in India where trips by cycle (constituting 11 percent) outnumber the trips by cars (8 per cent) according to a report by MOUD (Ministry of Urban Development, 2008). The data clearly reflects that people in this part of the world nearly make 2.5 million cycle-jaunts a day.
The Central government also stresses on the priority to construct cycle tracks and pedestrian paths in all cities, under the National Urban Transport Policy, with a view to enhance safety and increase the usage of non-motorised traffic. As part of this implementation, all cities would be prodded to explore the possibility of a public bicycle programme, wherein people can rent a bicycle for rides in specially earmarked areas.
Demanding a clear-cut resolution to this roadblock, Gautam Shroff of Ride to Breathe (which bolsters the cycle-related benefits and activities in Kolkata) said: “See, a strain of emotion and nostalgic sentiment is always attached to this modest, humble conveyance. Who doesn’t remember going to one’s school, college or office for that matter, hitching a quick ride on the cycle? We are not even asking for a niche, preferential treatment to be meted out to the cycles per se. Obviously rules will be preset to detect the errant cyclists, the way faulty scooterists and motorists are penalised for violating the traffic laws. If needed, they should even be fined and brought to book for committing an unwarranted offence or jumping the signal.”

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