On October 20, 2014, when a traffic constable in Kolkata attempted to fine bookstore worker Kestolal Ganguly for cycling in a no-cycling zone, the cyclist was livid. The police had already penalised him several times in the past. Highly agitated, he alighted from his bicycle, stood in front of the constable, loudly abused him, and then fainted. The constable panicked, and informed his superiors at once. They quickly called an ambulance that took Ganguly to the nearest public hospital. Later, at night, a police van dropped him home.

“That evening, they returned the Rs 100 fine that they had charged me”, Ganguly told this writer at his residence two months later.

Since then, Ganguly’s blood pressure, the cause of his fainting, is under control. He still cycles to work. But, miraculously, the traffic police have not fined him since.

Ganguly’s story illuminates urban cycling’s complex relationship with congested and polluted cities. Part of this relationship is about new battles for road space.

Cracking down on bicycles

Since their arrival from Britain in the late 19th century, bicycles have endured in Kolkata as vehicles of labour and recreation. In particular, they are the preferred vehicles of the city’s underclass, and channel essential goods and services. The bicycle’s capacity to take up minimal road space is highly desirable in Kolkata, where the ratio of road space to the total city space is 6%, the lowest in metropolitan India. Moreover, cyclists don’t contribute to the pollution level in a highly polluted city.

(Photo credit: Malini Sur).
(Photo credit: Malini Sur).

However, since 2008, bicycles have slowly been losing their legitimacy on Kolkata’s roads. The new traffic regulations enacted that year classified bicycles as slow-moving transport. On account of this, the city police prohibited bicycles on 38 major city roads. In 2012, as the Kolkata Police’s jurisdiction was extended to the city’s peripheries, bicycles were banned from 174 roads. In 2013, amended traffic regulations re-opened 112 roads to cyclists. However, the 62 roads where cycling remained prohibited included central and arterial roads on which cyclists relied greatly in order to journey to work and make a living.

As of today, 70 roads in West Bengal’s capital city still do not permit cycling.

Traffic impediment?

Instead of regarding bicycles as a necessary component of city traffic, and by extension, the urban economy, city administrators have consistently classified it as a traffic impediment.

Restricting urban cyclists delegitimises their role in urban economies.

The restrictions are not always overt.

For instance, bicycles can no longer inch towards the left of the road to make way for speeding buses and cars. Even as static entities, cars claim additional road space by parking on the side of roads and on pavements.

Similarly, penalising cyclists and not penalising vehicles parked on city roads explicitly favours motorised traffic.

Furthermore, the fines that the Kolkata police collect from cyclists are illegal. The slips issued upon collection of the penalty are often chits of plain paper little bigger than postage stamps. Some have a blue or purple circular seal stamped on them with the words “Traffic Guard” and “Kolkata Police” encircling the Ashoka lion pillar. The use of India’s national emblem lends the chit a false aura of legitimacy.

(Photo credit: Malini Sur).
(Photo credit: Malini Sur).

Other penalty slips are scribbles and signatures on plain paper. Some mention the word bicycle, others do not. The slips do not mention the amount of the fine, which is usually between Rs 100 and Rs 120. This is a princely sum for cyclists who are daily-wage workers or belong to the lower-middle class, like Ganguly. This arbitrary system of fines, which borders on extortion, further delegitimises urban bicycles. Both orchestrated and ad hoc penalty drives impair livelihoods.

Ganguly has created a collage of his penalty slips on placards. In 2015 and 2016, he attended street-corner protests and gatherings organised by various local associations that want all Kolkata’s roads to be open to cyclists. Here, he would display his placards.

Early this year, the Ashoka emblem vanished from new penalty slips. And along with it, official accountability for fines gathered since 2008.

Getting by in Kolkata

Notwithstanding the attempts to push cycles off Kolkata’s roads, the city’s informal spatial economies ensure that bicycles continue to ply on streets bearing no-cycling signs, even in the presence of traffic constables.

Daily-wage earning cyclists negotiate their right of passage with traffic police officers. They alight from their bicycles, walk on pavements, and then cycle again. Others negotiate passage for a monthly bribe. Cyclists dodge constables. Some salute them. Some cyclists also recount that constables are so scared of the city’s 600 closed-circuit television cameras at traffic junctions and of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s men watching over them, that they decline bribes. A combination of these factors tells us why Ganguly is still able to cycle to work without being fined.

Kolkata’s cycling policies are also ambiguous.

The Trinamool Congress government’s Sobooj Sathi or Green Companion initiative – a free bicycle distribution programme – is aimed at reducing the drop-out rates of students of Classes 9-12 in government schools by giving them bicycles to ride to school.

Thus, while educational policies encourage urban cycling, traffic policies prohibit it.

(Photo credit: Malini Sur).
(Photo credit: Malini Sur).

Citizens seize initiative

Nevertheless citizens seem determined to keep bicycling alive in Kolkata.

On the morning of January 15, 150 cyclists gathered in front of a North Kolkata local club. The Kolkata Cycle Samaj, a citizen’s platform, had convened the city’s fourth annual cycle rally where students, professionals, and daily wage workers chanted, “bicycles for the environment”, “bicycles for love” and “bicycles for protest” as they cycled for almost 45 km through the city.

Their energetic, voices echoed down the city’s roads and reminded city dwellers of the value of the bicycle that is slowly being rendered invisible on Kolkata’s roads.

Malini Sur is an anthropologist and a faculty member at the Institute of Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. She has recently completed Life Cycle, a documentary on Kolkata’s cycles.