The prohibition imposed on bicycle riding and use of non-motorised transport in 174 designated roads of Kolkata during most hours of the workday or round-the-clock is undemocratic, environmentally retrograde and out of sync with modern urban transport planning. At a time when global cities are thinking beyond the car and popularising shared bicycle systems, the law enforcement machinery in West Bengal’s capital has chosen to go the opposite way, in order to create more space for powered vehicles. The police order on bicycles and non-motorised vehicles has inflicted misery and financial pain on tens of thousands of workers who use this humble mode of transport to go about their job. Many are involved in the delivery of essential articles such as milk, letters and medicines. They do not add to the already unsustainable fuel import bill and cause no pollution. West Bengal has 11.47 million households with bicycles as per Census 2011, second only to Uttar Pradesh, where the figure is nearly double. The impact of the ‘ban’ in Kolkata is therefore bound to be staggering, more so as urban households form almost a fourth of these families. The outrage in the community over the intolerant decision and the protests calling for its revocation are fully justified.
The move to effectively banish the bicycle from large parts of ‘Calcutta’ is particularly ironic, since Asansol was the home of Sen-Raleigh, among the iconic brands of bicycles made in post-independence India. Bicycles as a mainstream transport option are under threat today, as it is difficult and risky to ride them in crowded cities. This is reflected in the dip in the number of urban households that have one by four percentage points, to 41.9 per cent, compared to a decade ago. The National Urban Transport Policy has made little headway in addressing the concerns of cyclists and pedestrians. The urban planning record stands in contrast to what is happening in the developed countries, and even emerging nations in Latin America. Curitiba in Brazil, for instance, is creating a microgrid of roads for bicycle connectivity, to benefit workers. New York, with a history of ‘class conflicts’ in allocation of road space, has struck a blow for cyclists with the launch of a bike-sharing programme. Regrettably, none of these progressive models seems to appeal to Indian policymakers, who promote car use to the exclusion of other modes. Even the settled legal principle of ‘polluter pays’ has been ignored in Kolkata. The Trinamool Congress government must remember that there is powerful symbolism associated with the bicycle worldwide, as a vehicle of freedom from tyranny. It should stop oppressing those who impose no costs on the city and perform an economic function in the greenest manner possible.