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Needed: A Street Fight

Vidyadhar Date ( is a senior journalist in Mumbai.

Countries around the world are promoting bicycle riding, but Indian leaders continue to pursuecar-centric policies.

While visiting the Netherlands at the end of June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a photograph of himself sitting on a bicycle that his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte had gifted him. It was a deceptive image, because, just like previous Indian governments, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime has paid little attention to the common man’s modes of travel, such as cycling and walking, in an era when many big cities in the world are laying more cycle tracks, discouraging cars, and encouraging public transport and walking.

A week after Modi appeared on the bicycle, the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh government reinforced the hollowness of the image by declaring that it would demolish cycle tracks in the state because it claimed, contradictorily, that they were both unused and caused congestion. The previous government, of the Samajwadi Party, which has the bicycle as its election symbol, had built these tracks. Apparently, our Prime Minister did not learn much from his contact with the head of the world’s most bicycle-friendly nation.

The BJP attacked Uttar Pradesh’s cycle tracks, only partly for political reasons. It also subscribes to a transport ideology that accords primacy to cars and treats non-motorised, slower modes of transport as a nuisance. This approach goes against the spirit of the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006, the last such document, which gives priority to walking, cycling and public transport, and discourages the use of cars. A Parliamentary standing committee on transport, in its report on the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill 2016 that it submitted to both houses in February, also disregarded this policy by recommending that civic authorities ban bicycles and autorickshaws from main roads. Fortunately, the road transport minister, Nitin Gadkari, later clarified that his government opposed curbs on bicycles after a national network of activists campaigning for sustainable urban mobility wrote to him protesting against the proposal.

Every year, the central government pays lip service to public transport at the Urban Mobility India Conference that it holds. I have attended this conference for the past few years. The very choice of venue, the Manekshaw Centre, reveals how little the government cares about the issue: the centre is a forbidding military complex inaccessible by public transport, because the nearest metro station, Dhaula Kuan, is 2 km away, and it is not easy to reach even by car because of the peculiar configuration of the roads there. Last year, the government shifted the venue to Gandhinagar, to a complex equally inaccessible by public transport and one that is a most un-Gandhian steel–concrete structure.

The Dutch Way

A visitor to the Netherlands cannot but be struck by the lovely sight of a large number of men and women on cycles enjoying a dominant position on the streets. Prime Minister Rutte himself often rides to his office on a bicycle, which might come as a shock to those used to seeing heads of poor countries travelling in cars in big cavalcades. On her visit to New Delhi in 2014, the Dutch health minister, Edith Schippers, rode on a bicycle around the Dhyan Chand National Stadium to show that cycling was a healthy mode of transport. People go to the Netherlands to study its people-friendly transport scene. Modi, too, could have learnt much from his visit.

Netherlands’ cycling culture goes back a long way. By 1911, the Dutch owned more cycles per capita than any other country in Europe. In the 1960s, the bicycle also became a major symbol of resistance against the domination of the motor car. An anarchist counterculture movement called Provo protested against what it called the “terrorism” of the car, demanding that the authorities ban automobiles in the heart of Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, and that they distribute free bicycles instead. “We have nothing to lose but our bicycle chains,” was one of its slogans, writes Zack Furness in One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, published in 2010.

In the 1970s, the use of the motor car expanded globally, but the Dutch strongly opposed it, taking to the streets to protest against the large number of children’s deaths that cars caused. In the same decade, global petrol prices soared, and this, too, pushed the Dutch government to discourage car use. This made the Netherlands one of the most liveable countries in the world.

Between 2006 and 2010, civic authorities of The Hague, the Netherlands’ third-largest city, spent nearly 34 million euros, about₹255 crore, to upgrade its network of cycling lanes. When an Indian Supreme Court judge, Dalveer Bhandari, was appointed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2005, his hosts asked him which bicycle he would like to ride—so common was, and is, bicycle use even among the affluent.

Political Parties

In India, bicycles are crucial for working people’s lives, just as they were in post-war Italy, as seen in Vittorio de Sica’s classic film Bicycle Thieves, released in 1948. But almost all political parties in India have failed to promote it as a viable mode of transport.

The Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, Uttar Pradesh’s previous chief minister, at least outlined a vision. He had studied the facilities in France, Germany and the Netherlands, and had managed to build 35 km of cycle tracks in Lucknow, and a 207-km bicycle highway between his home district, Etawah, and Bareilly. But even he did not go far enough, because leaders must launch a larger campaign and create facilities such as parking and repair shops, to get people to use bicycles in large numbers.

Bihar’s Janata Dal (United) chief minister, Nitish Kumar, launched the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana in 2006, which gave girls free bicycles to travel to school. By 2011, this had led to a marked increase in attendance. Similarly, Pedaling to Freedom, an Indian film directed by Vijay S Jodha and released in 2007, told the story of how the collector of Pudukkottai district in Tamil Nadu, Sheela Rani Chunkath, pushed banks to give loans to girls to buy bicycles, and showed how this immediately improved their mobility.

But by and large, most political parties in India remain obsessed with the car and its glamour, and have done little to promote bicycle riding. On the contrary, most state governments are pursuing policies that work against cycling and walking.

The Congress, for one, is bereft of ideas on this front. For all their proclaimed identification with Western liberal values, the Gandhis have never taken to the bicycle the way some European leaders have. Sandeep Dikshit, a former Congress Member of Parliament (MP) and the son of the former Delhi Chief Minister Sheela Dikshit, used to cycle to Parliament for health reasons, but he complained that it had no parking spots for bicycles. Had it provided such space, he said, a few other MPs would also have liked to cycle to Parliament. In Bandra, the locality in Mumbai where I live, I see the local civic corporator, the Congress’s Asif Zakaria, sometimes riding a bicycle. But he is an exception. Currently, bicycling on Indian roads is dangerous, but people need to come out with bicycles in larger numbers to challenge the dominance of cars.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M), far from promoting the cause of pedestrians and bicycling, became obsessed with the Nano car and paid a heavy price for that blunder. Both under the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress, the Kolkata administration has been hostile to cycle users, barring them from a large number of roads. In these areas, they have to get off their cycles and wheel them along. Similarly, in many cities in India, the authorities confiscate cycle rickshaws. Would the government dare confiscate or destroy cars, Judge G S Singhvi of the Delhi High Court asked its lawyer in 2011.

The former Bahujan Samaj Party chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, even while championing the needs of the downtrodden, supported the building of a track in Greater Noida for the highly elitist Formula 1 motor car sport, which has turned out to be a gigantic waste of money and space.

As for the Telugu Desam Party, which, like the Samajwadi Party, has the bicycle as its election symbol, its leader, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, N Chandrababu Naidu, was keen to build a motor-racing track in Hyderabad (before it became part of Telangana), and also assiduously wooed automobile manufacturers to his state.

Public to Private

In 2004, in one of the most wanton acts of appropriation, the National Sports Club of India in Mumbai razed an open-air stadium named after Vallabhbhai Patel and a cycle velodrome, both open to the public, and in its place, built a fancy indoor stadium now mainly used for non-sports events for the rich, such as lavish weddings. The track was the site for the shooting of a cycle race that was the climactic scene of the award-winning film Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar starring Aamir Khan released in 1992. It is ironical that BMW used this very space in June to launch a car.

Then, in 2011, Maharashtra’s Congress government wasted crores of rupees building a 13-km cycle path in Mumbai’s Bandra–Kurla Complex, a business district. The track lies mostly unused because people who travel to places in the complex, such as the United States consulate, the fancy Dhirubhai Ambani International School and plush offices are not likely to use bicycles. There is no point in constructing a bicycle track just because a wide road is available.

Policymakers must promote the ordinary, inexpensive bicycle, but in Mumbai it has become more of an upper-class recreational vehicle, with some brands costing more than₹1 lakh. Recently, I saw a Mercedes car being marketed in an open space in my locality. I wondered why it was flanked by two bicycles only to realise that the company also manufactures expensive cycle brands. Yet the authorities harass ordinary cycle users.

Space for People

Our street life cries out for democratisation. We need more space for people, not for cars. Streets should be lively spaces where people can walk and socialise freely without being threatened constantly by the car. Modi’s visit to the Netherlands could have been a game changer. Even Israel, which he visited a week later, has a large network of cycle ways.

In all countries, the battle against the car’s dominance was won after a hard long fight. Unfortunately, in India, the resistance is very nascent and tentative. We do not have much of a counterculture and much of the left is not even aware that we need to fight this fight. This one has literally to be a street fight. Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution is the telling title of a book published in 2016, written by New York’s former transport commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan—whose implementation of bicycle lanes encountered tremendous resistance—and Seth Solomonow.

China is bringing back bicycles in a big way, which I witnessed when I visited in April. It was great to observe the confidence, dignity and freedom that its citizens enjoy while riding the bicycle. But overall, we should emulate the Netherlands, not the United States, which has become the Asphalt Nation, the title of Jane Holtz Kay’s excellent book published in 1997, which describes how the automobile has eaten away land in that country and caused numerous other problems.

I must credit Modi for having introduced India’s first successful bus rapid transit system, in Ahmedabad in 2009, when he was Gujarat’s chief minister. This system covers 89 km, and around 1,32,000 people use it daily. But other parts of India have not learnt from this. Contrast this with a small Latin American country, Colombia, which introduced the bus rapid transit system in 2000 under the leadership of Enrique Peňalosa, who is popularising it in other countries. He correctly argues that public transport is essentially a political issue, not a technical one to be left to engineers. India must have separate bus and cycle lanes with curbs on cars, but this is not happening, given our leaders’ pro-car attitude.


Updated On : 28th Jul, 2017


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