Police and transport department ignored months of protests by users of non-motorised transport
After months of protests against an unprecedented embargo on cycles and other forms of non-motorised transport, activists in Kolkata have filed a public interest petition before the Calcutta High Court. The petition was filed on January 18 by non-profit Switch On along with Prasant Purkait, a user who delivers pest control services on a humble bicycle. The non-profit along with other groups like the Kolkata Cycle Arohi Adhikar O Jibika Raksha Committee (KCAAJRC) have been protesting against the ban on cycles and non-motorised transport (NMT) like rickshaws and handcarts in Kolkata.
Way back in 2008, the Kolkata traffic police prohibited cycling on 38 major thoroughfares. Despite earlier protests by cyclists and environment groups, more roads were added to the list. In May 2013, it published another gazette notification prohibiting cycles on 174 roads. While on some roads cycling is prohibited altogether, on most roads cycles are not allowed to ply between 7 am and 11 pm.
Kolkata police in its fervour to implement the ban has been collecting fines from errant riders who dare to defy. Cyclists are regularly made to pay upwards of Rs 100 without any receipts. The monetary penalty is illegal as the police commissioner’s order has no provisions for fines.
What’s more, the May 2013 notification was issued by the commissioner of police under the West Bengal Traffic Regulation Act of 1965, which clearly states that any such notification is valid only for two months, unless ratified by the state government. The notification was never ratified and, therefore, expired two months later, on July 29, 2013.
“Responding to an RTI we filed, Kolkata police informed that the notification was not based on any study or plan which concluded such a ban will improve the traffic situation,” said Ekta Kothari Jaju from Switch On. The notification restricting “slow vehicles” was issued on mere perception, by the Kolkata police commissioner Surajit Kar Purakayastha, “with a view to provide safe and uninterrupted flow of vehicular traffic”.
“We have tried everything – from protesting on the streets to meeting top officials. Yet Kolkata Police failed to mend their ways. We had no option but to approach the high court for justice. We hope that the arbitrary notification will be quashed by the court,” added Jaju.
“Cycling prohibited” signs now adorn most city roads where one is allowed to pedal only during odd hours—between 11 pm and 7 am. Ironically, Kolkata is the only Indian metro where trips by cycle outnumber trips on cars. Only 1.5 per cent of road accidents happen because of fault of cyclists compared to 71 per cent due to drivers of motor vehicles. Cycle is the vehicle of choice in a city with the least amount of road space and low ownership of private cars.
A recent study by Switch On showed the positive impacts of cycles and NMT in Kolkata. NMT has an economic impact to the tune of Rs 2.6 lakh crores per year – through movement of essential goods and commodities from business to business and to consumers. It saves the city of 850,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year and 35 million litres of fuel. Cycling and NMT provide direct employment to over 60,000 people. A survey with doctors showed that cancer and other respiratory illnesses in Kolkata are increasing—this can be directly attributed to vehicular pollution.
In July last year, Down To Earth was the first to report on the ban and the plight of cyclists in Kolkata. After the report was published, non-profits and cyclists took to the streets to protest the ban.
“I have been fined three times this month while delivering milk,” an angry Omkar Mandal told Down To Earth in a protest demonstration last month. For over two decades, Mandal has been cycling about 10 km every day to pick up and deliver milk. “Each time I have to pay Rs 120. How can I survive like this?” he had asked. At a protest venue in September last year, many had scribbled on a white canvas. Some messages- “paddle into a green future” or “burn more calories than cash”- were hopeful; one took a dig: “what next, ban pedestrians?”
The hopes of humble cyclists are now pinned on the high court.
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