Bicyclists in crowded Indian city fight to take back the streets

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Bicycle-sharing programs are pretty popular around the world. They seem to be everywhere - Amsterdam, New York, Paris, Copenhagen, Montreal, here in Boston. But the city we want you to name is going in the opposite direction. This major city in India has banned bicycles from major roads. Authorities there say the bikes slow down motorized traffic, contributing to gridlock. But many of those bikes are used for commerce and the ban could have unintended consequences.

Ekta Kothari: You're talking about people who deliver milk, who deliver newspapers, delivering goods, so its like the entire city's going to come to a standstill.

Werman: So which city in India is it? We'll hear how cyclists there are trying to fight the ban when we return with the answer to our Geo Quiz later in the program.


Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". Back to that city now we asked you about in our Geo Quiz, the one that's banning bicycles in an effort to combat traffic gridlock. That city is Kolkata in India. Ekta Kothari is a cyclist there and she's helping to challenge the ban on bikes or "cycles" as they're called in India.

Kothari: So they have banned cycles and non-motorized transport from 174 [??]. This is like a blanket ban across Kolkata. This is in the eastern part of India and this is from 7:00 in the morning to 11:00 in the night. So they expect people to sort of ride their bikes from 11:00 p.m. in the nights to 6:00 in the morning which is absolutely insane.

Werman: Does that mean that dedicated cyclists can still bike, but they'll have to figure out shortcuts through alleyways?

Kothari: So there are lots of alleys and by-lanes, but they're not connected to each other, so eventually you would have to cut across a major road and that's where you would be caught by the cops. And cycling not just means recreation and it not just means that, you know, that I can't go to my office tomorrow, but for a big chunk of people it is their livelihood. You're talking about people who deliver milk, who deliver newspapers on cycles. You have the entire city delivering goods on non-motorized transports like cycle-vans, handcarts. So it's like the entire city is gonna come to a standstill if the ban actually takes effect.

Werman: And when is it supposed to take effect?

Kothari: So what's happening now is that if you're caught by the cops, which is like very often, then you have to a pay a fine which is very arbitrary and you don't get a receipt saying that you have paid a 100 rupee fine or a 300 rupee fine, and you would have to pay that to get your bicycle or your van released and then go on for your work. And that receipt is valid for a day, so again tomorrow you may be caught.

Werman: What's this gonna do to commerce and the economy of Kolkata?

Kothari: So the interesting part is that though they have banned, they haven't really banned these people, so these people still ply on the streets like before. Now it's just that they have to pay between 100 to 300 rupees every time they are caught by the police. So what they say now is that they feel like thieves. It's almost like as soon as they see a cop they get off their cycle, they start walking with their cycles, they try to sort of take another route or something and they don't feel good about it.

Werman: I've got to say, Ekta, from the way you describe it, it sounds like a ban on bicycles in Kolkata can be calamitous for the city.

Kothari: It's absolutely crazy, so we've all gotten together to start a movement in Kolkata. We call this the "Chakra Satyagraha". "Chakra" stands for wheel or the symbol of wheel in the Indian flag and "Satyagraha" of course is the non-violent protest that Mahatma Gandhi undertook to get freedom for the country. We're doing a really large event on the 2nd of October. We're expecting about seven to ten thousand people who will get together, sit on a major crossing in the city. What we're hoping is that the government will see some sense, especially when they see tens of thousands of people on the street. And it's not just going to impact them, but the entire city because the entire city is connected and dependent on these people. If tomorrow they actually stop, there will be no milk, there will be no newspapers in almost all the houses of Kolkata. So we cannot have them lifted from the streets without giving them an alternative.

Werman: Ekta Kothari in Kolkata, India, which is the answer to our Geo Quiz today. Ekta, thank you and the best of luck on your two wheels.

Kothari: It was lovely speaking with you.