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Indian cyclists crushed in the rush for prosperity

The hierarchy on India's roads is topped by lorries and buses, followed by cars and autorickshaws. Cyclists are above the widely ignored pedestrian, but below cows.
An Indian rickshaw driver pushes his heavily-laden cycle through traffic at an intersection in New Delhi. Roberto Schmidt / AFP
An Indian rickshaw driver pushes his heavily-laden cycle through traffic at an intersection in New Delhi. Roberto Schmidt / AFP

NEW DELHI // Laws are virtually alien to India’s road users, but there is a clear hierarchy, with men like Sushil Kumar who cycles to work each day near the bottom rung.

While the rigid caste system still governs the social structure of most of India, out on the motorways and by-lanes, size, and occasionally noise, defines everyone’s place and expectations.

Lorries and buses, often driven with arrogance bordering on hostility, top the pyramid, followed by cars and autorickshaws. Cyclists are above the widely ignored pedestrian, but below cows.

The transport of choice for the poor — 45 per cent of households have a bike — has long been overlooked and now faces a struggle to survive in one city, Kolkata, after being banned from central roads.

While Kolkata has been widely condemned for restricting millions of people and their livelihoods, the cyclist faces a daily battle for space on roads 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 biker.

“Nobody in power even knows how to cycle, they’d fall right off,” Mr Correa said.

“Decisions are made for the city by people who use cars,” he says, unlike in developed countries where “sufficiently important people” use public transport or bikes.

“That hasn’t happened in India. It’s like the British Raj, the sahib (boss) should never be seen waiting for the bus,” he said.

Sushil Kumar leaves his home every morning at 6:00am for his job in the telecoms ministry where he is paid 5,500 rupees (Dh350) a month — less than the minimum wage — by a private contractor.

His route of 24 kilometres takes him from his home in the tough Delhi suburb of Ghaziabad, past camel-pulled carts and around potholes, and beyond rows of mushrooming apartment blocks.

It takes an hour and half in the morning to finally reach the central leafy boulevards of New Delhi, and often two hours to return. He travels about 1,000 kilometres each month.

“I’ve been knocked off but luckily the car stopped in time,” the 41-year-old father of four said, adding that he messages his anxious wife each day when he arrives at work.

What would be an act of suicide for the unaccustomed is a regular commute for Mr Kumar, who 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 who are being pushed further and further out of Delhi as property prices rise.

“It’s very dangerous ... There is the metro, but it’s 60 rupees a day and I can’t afford it,” he says.

His bike is of typical Indian style — a battered black 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 — accidents are commonplace, even for those taking the necessary precautions.

Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain underwent surgery for serious facial injuries after being catapulted from her bike last month by a car that hit her from behind and sped off.

In June, 51-year-old national cycling coach Ruma Chatterjee was killed while out training on an expressway on the outskirts of New Delhi. The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.

“This hierarchy on the road is so well established in India,” Anil Shukla, one of Delhi’s most senior traffic policemen, who lamented the lack of cycle paths and space for bikers.

“The cyclist is a very lowly creature. Even among the cars, the SUV is the best,” he said at an event to distribute reflective stickers to bikers.

Seventy to 80 cyclists are killed each year in Delhi, he says.

Anumita Roychowdhury, a colleague of Narain’s from the Centre for Science and Environment, says India is driving out cyclists even as many cities in the West are encouraging them.

“If you look at how most people travel, they are either using public transport or they are cycling or walking,” she said. “But you are not designing the city for the majority.”

Investments in transport infrastructure in most Indian cities overwhelmingly pay for road widening or expensive underground metro systems like Delhi’s, which opened in 2002.

But an estimated 12 million bicycles are sold each year in India, compared with only 1.89 million cars, according to industry figures.

The last census in 2011 showed that 45 per cent of Indian households own a bicycle, 21 per cent have a motorbike or scooter and only five per cent have four-wheeled transport.

Cyclist Sriram Yadav, 54, remembers better days when he started using his bike in Delhi before the market liberalisation of the 1990s led to a spurt in car ownership.

“Delhi roads were empty,” the school janitor said as he rested on a pavement. “It was so deserted that you’d be scared going home at night because there was no one around.”

Agence France-Presse

Published: November 5, 2013 04:00 AM

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