For the milkmen and newspaper delivery boys of Kolkata, navigating the city’s clogged lanes is always a challenge. But now they face a new obstacle: traffic cops waiting to write them a ticket.
Just for riding a bike.
A ban on cycling in one of India’s most polluted and crowded cities has sparked protests in recent days and reignited civic debate over the country’s attitudes toward its poor — many of whom cannot afford even a bus ride — and its commitment to addressing air quality.
Kolkata, the sprawling metropolis of 14 million formerly known as Calcutta, first prohibited bikes on about three dozen streets in 2008. The police commissioner recently expanded the measure, barring bicycles, non-motorized rickshaws, carts and cycle vans from 174 roads. Authorities said the move was aimed at easing traffic flow.
Although bike travel will be allowed on some streets after business hours, activists say the new restrictions are tantamount to a ban on cycling in the entire city. They say the measure makes no sense at a time when traffic and air pollution are worsening in Asia. The air is so bad in Kolkata, for example, that the city’s most famous monument, the Queen Victoria Memorial, has turned yellow from fumes and smog.
“It’s absolutely off-track, and they need to reverse it,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi. “In our part of the world, we need to keep people on cycles and public transport, not force them into cars.”
The ban has deeply complicated the lives of those who depend on cycling for their livelihood.
Prabhunath Rai, 55, a Kolkata resident who owns a fleet of three-wheeled cycle carts, said his business has taken a hit since police began enforcing the ban in the summer.
“All of us feel like criminals now. With 174 streets, it’s almost the whole city, so everything we do is a crime,” Rai said.
He noted that the small carts are essential to commerce in the city, as many trucks can’t navigate Kolkata’s narrow, colonial-era lanes.
The city’s milkmen — who pick up thigh-high cans of milk at the ancient Jorasanko milk market and distribute them throughout Kolkata on bicycles — also have felt the squeeze.
Mehmood Khan, 55, said he has been ticketed 15 times. The milkmen say the amount of the fines — which they must pay on the spot or risk having their bikes confiscated — varies according to the police officer’s whimsy but can range from 100 to 300 rupees (about $1.60 to $5), which for some is a day’s wages.
“The first time I was caught, I was shocked,” Khan said. “The cops said my cycle was not allowed. What can I do? I have no other option but to get fined again and again.”
About a dozen of India’s most prominent social activists recently sent a letter to Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the eastern state of West Bengal, where Kolkata is located, saying the cycling ban “is an assault on the livelihoods of working-class people.”
Government officials have said little about how the policy may affect workers or the poor. They have instead emphasized traffic and safety issues.
The government of India formulated a transportation policy in 2006 that encourages support for cyclists. In recent years, bike lanes have begun to appear in cities such as New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Pune.
Not so in Kolkata.
Dilip Kumar Adak, deputy commissioner of traffic police in Kolkata, said the bikes have been banned because of “lack of space” and because they slow the flow of traffic in the city.
“We have a huge number of vehicles moving around Kolkata,” Adak said. “Even without the bikes, it is difficult for us to get traffic to run smoothly.” He noted that cycling will be allowed in some of the farther reaches of the city. The government also says that it plans to eventually create elevated cycle lanes.
Kolkata has a well-developed public transit system, with trams, buses and a subway. Eleven percent of the population uses bicycles as their main mode of transport, with about 2.5 million bicycle trips a day, according to government statistics. About 8 percent drive cars, 54 percent mainly use public transport, and 19 percent walk.
Gautam Shroff, a bicycle-shop owner who also heads the local cycling advocacy group Ride 2 Breathe, said class divisions may be driving the ban. In India, he noted, cycling has traditionally been seen as a “poor man’s transport” rather than an environmentally friendly transit option or a recreational activity.
He’s trying to change that by marketing shiny $500 bicycles to middle- and upper-middle-class Kolkatans and organizing mountain biking treks into the countryside.
Last week, he and another activist, Manjit Singh, 41, pedaled around Kolkata’s business district. It was a humid morning, and the city was just waking up. Delivery men whizzed by on bikes loaded with newspapers, ears of corn and bolts of cloth.
Shroff, 39, said that before the new regulation, the city’s streets teemed with bicycles all day long. But since the ban, he has seen the numbers decline — even though some people continue to defy it.
“By 11 o’clock, this place will be empty,” Shroff said, referring to the time that police have typically started their enforcement actions.
Shroff circled around a wide square near the governor’s mansion and stopped to talk to a traffic cop wearing rubber boots and Kolkata’s trademark all-white police uniform. Although a sign posted on his booth read “Cycling Prohibited,” the officer let Shroff go without a ticket, leaving the activist slightly disappointed as he pedaled off to breakfast.