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Cyclists crushed in prosperity rush

2013-11-07 06:39

1000KM PER MONTH: Indian cyclist Sushil Kumar sits on his bicycle as he waits at a traffic light in New Delhi as he returns home from work. Cyclists are above the widely ignored pedestrian, but below cows. Image: AFP

NEW DELHI, India - Traffic laws are virtually alien to India's anarchic roads but there is a clear hierarchy with men such as Sushil Kumar, who cycles to work each day, near the bottom.

Investments in transport infrastructure in most Indian cities overwhelmingly pay for road widening or expensive underground metro systems such as that of Delhi which opened in 2002 but an estimated 12-million bicycles are sold each year in India against only 1.89-million cars

A census in 2011 showed that 45% of Indian households owned a bicycle, 21% a motorcycle or scooter but only five percent  four-wheeled transport.


The rigid caste system still governs the social structure of most of India but size, and occasionally noise, define everybody's place and expectations. Trucks and buses, often driven with arrogance bordering on hostility, top the pyramid, followed by cars and auto-rickshaws. Cyclists are above the widely ignored pedestrian but below cows.

The bicycle, the transport of the poor, has long been overlooked and now faces a struggle to survive in one city, Calcutta, after being banned from central roads. While that city has been widely condemned for restricting millions of people and their livelihoods, the cyclist faces a daily Darwinian battle for road space across the country.

Charles Correa, India's most famous modern architect and planning expert, says the car-driving ruling class is indifferent to and ignorant of the plight of the urban cyclist. He scoffed in an interview by phone from his office in Mumbai: "Nobody in power even knows how to cycle, they'd fall right off. Decisions are made for the city by people who use cars."

Unlike in developed countries where "sufficiently important" people use public transport or a bicycle "that hasn't happened in India". "It's like the British Raj, the sahib (boss) should never be seen waiting for the bus," Correa told AFP.

Sushil Kumar, 41 and father of four, leaves his home every day at 6am for his job in the telecoms ministry where he is paid the equivalent of about R950 a month - less than the minimum wage - by a private contractor. His 24km route takes him from his home in the tough Delhi suburb of Ghaziabad, past camel-carts, around potholes and rows of mushrooming apartment blocks. It takes 90 minutes in the morning to reach the central leafy boulevards of New Delhi, often two hours to return.

He covers about about 1000km a month and told AFP: "I've been knocked off but luckily the car stopped in time."


What would be an act of suicide for the unaccustomed is a regular commute for Kumar as he negotiates the relentless traffic in the oppressive heat of summer and numbing cold of winter. On his bike in cotton shirt and trousers, he is identifiably a member of the class of unskilled labourers pushed further and further out of Delhi as property prices rise.

"It's very dangerous... there is the metro (as an alternative) but it's 60 rupees (about R10) a day and I can't afford it," he says.

His bike is of typical Indian style - a battered black machine with rugged old-fashioned geometry, single-geared and without reflectors or lights. While he has avoided serious injury - "I have to ride defensively," he says - collisions are common, even for those taking the necessary precautions.

Anil Shukla, one of Delhi's most senior traffic cops and lamenting the lack of cycle paths and space for cyclists, told AFP at an event to distribute reflective stickers: "This hierarchy on the road is so well-established in India. The cyclist is a very lowly creature. Even among the cars, the SUV is the best."

Nearly 100 cyclists are killed each year in Delhi, he says.

Anumita Roychowdhury, a colleague of Narain from the Centre for Science and Environment, says India is driving out cyclists even as many cities in the West are encouraging them. "Most people are either using public transport or cycling or walking, but you are not designing the city for the majority."

Cyclist Sriram Yadav (54) remembers better days when he started using his bike in Delhi before the market liberalisation of the 1990's led to a spurt in car ownership. Yadav said: "Delhi's roads were empty. It was so deserted that you'd be scared going home at night because there was nobody around."

Read more on:    india  |  bicycles  |  public transport

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