Two years have rolled by since Anil Shukla, a roadside vendor in Connaught Place, got a stinging slap across his face from a car driver at the ITO crossing as he was cycling home. But he has yet to forget the humiliation.
The time was close to 10 p.m., and Shukla had been headed home after a hard day with two bags dangling from his bicycle handle and a third perched precariously on the rear rack. Just as he neared ITO, a car had begun honking furiously from behind and gone on to graze against his bicycle, throwing him off balance.
“I was scared, and as I steadied myself, the car stopped a few metres ahead of me. A tall, stout man came out and slapped me hard across my face, saying I should not have attempted suicide in front of his car,” recalls Shukla, a frail 29-year-old man. “There are thousands of cyclists like me who suffer such humiliation every day on Delhi’s roads. Car owners feel the roads belong to them, we are considered trespassers.”
What Shukla went through is not an isolated case. Every day, lakhs of people like him — vendors, shop helps, factory workers, daily labourers, peons — cycle to work, braving the maddening Delhi traffic, bullying motorists, harsh weather and pollution in a city often dubbed as one of the most dangerous in the world for cyclists. For them, it is not recreational cycling – rather, it is the only way they can reach their workplace.
Not many people know that about 30.6 per cent of the city’s households own a bicycle, and that about 11 per cent of its working population cycles to work, according to the 2011 census. Most of those who cycle to work say they cannot afford public transport. So, in a city that is crammed with over 10 million vehicles, they have no option but to bike against the odds.
Fifty-two-year-old Rajesh Yadav, who lives in Karkardooma and works in a Karol Bagh electronic shop, is one such person. His 34 kilometres (both ways) daily bike ride takes about three hours and a heavy toll on his body. There is a direct Metro train on his route but Yadav, who earns `9,000 a month, says he cannot afford it. “Travelling by Metro will cost me about `1,800 a month, which is beyond my means,” says Yadav, who has been cycling to work for 30 years. “Over the years, the city has got fancy air-conditioned buses and Metro, but I never felt they were meant for people like me. At my age, it is increasingly becoming difficult to cycle to work.”
If Yadav has been cycling to work for 30 years, Surinder Kumar, a resident of Gamri village in east Delhi, has been doing it for 20. Even when it rains, he has to continue the drill. A few days ago, when he had just recovered from fever and it was pouring, his wife had suggested that he take an auto. But after a minute’s thought, Kumar put on his black raincoat and hit the road cycling.
“I earn `8,000 a month and have two sons and a wife to look after. I cannot afford to spend `100 on auto,” says Kumar, his raincoat dripping with water. He is on his way to Gandhi Nagar, where he works in a garment shop. “These days, there is often a pain in my right leg which gets worse when I cycle. But I do not have a choice.”
Most cyclists risk their lives every day in a city where roads, service roads, arterial roads, lanes, even footpaths, are chock-a-block with vehicles. With about 10 million vehicles jostling for space on the roads, two cyclists are said to lose their lives every week on an average, according to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
“Every time I leave home on my cycle, I am not sure I will return safely. Every cycle ride in Delhi is nothing short of an invitation to death,” says Vikas Singh, who lives in Kartar Nagar in east Delhi and commutes to Daryaganj, where he works as a helper with a book distributor. “What I am most worried about is the life of my wife and children who often ride pillion with me.”
Like lakhs of others, Vikas often takes his family to visit relatives on his cycle, drops his children to school on it or even visits the doctor with his wife riding pillion. “Every day, I take my children to school on my cycle. Until a week back, I was taking my pregnant wife to the doctor on the cycle,” says the 32-year-old who has been cycling to work for 12 years.
So, why does he not take a loan and buy a motorbike?
“I have my parents, wife, two daughters and a newborn son to look after. I earn `9,000 a month and save nothing. My priority is to educate my children, not buy a motorcycle,” says Vikas, who wanted to become a journalist. “I have published poems in Hindi dailies. But I could not get a job with a newspaper because I have only cleared Class XII. I once dreamt of a car, now I cannot even buy a motorcycle.”
For most cyclists, buying a motorcycle is a dream that has repeatedly been put off. Not just that, many cannot even buy a new cycle and have been using the same one for 15-20 years. They say they cannot easily arrange the `4,000-`5,000 that a roadster – popularly known as a ‘black cycle’—costs. Some have, however, had their cycles stolen because there are no dedicated cycle-parking lots in the city. “I have lost four cycles in the last 15 years. When I go for office errands, I have no option but to park my cycle on the road,” says Surinder Kumar.
Many cyclists prefer to travel in groups to fight what they call the ‘tyranny of motorists’, and demand their share of space on the roads. It is not unusual to see such groups commuting to work together so they can help each other if they run into trouble.“Motorists avoid picking fights or manhandling us when they see so many of us together,” says Madhav Singh, who works as a peon in a Connaught Place office. Every day, he travels 20 kilometres from Karawal Nagar to central Delhi.
Rakesh Tiwari, who cycles 22 kilometres from Tronica in Uttar Pradesh to Chandni Chowk on cycle, corroborated what Madhav said. “One day, I was hit by a motorcyclist. The rims of my cycle wheels got badly twisted. The biker tried to run as I fell. My fellow cyclists ran after him, caught him and made him pay for repairs,” he says, adding: “Cycles have no headlights and it is particularly dangerous to ride alone at night.”
Over the last two decades, several attempts have been made to fix Delhi’s transport problem. Numerous panels and expert committees have been set up, surveys done and recommendations sought to iron it out. Cycling has been allotted pride of place in these reports. A 2016 report of a high-powered committee set up by the Union urban development ministry to suggest ways to decongest Delhi has made a special mention of ‘Issues of Cycling’.
The report admits that “with a mix of slow and fast moving traffic on the roads, travel by bicycle and rickshaws is very unsafe, and road fatalities of cyclists are on the rise every year.”
Among the many recommendations it makes is a “convenient bicycle system, which is continuous, obstruction free and with clearly demarcated bicycle tracks or lanes with good signage, road marking, lighting, at least one line of tree shade, and more bicycle parking areas.”
But Rajendra Ravi, founder, Institute for Democracy And Sustainability, a non-government organisation advocating the rights of cyclists, is not amused. “It has become fashionable to talk about cyclists these days when smart city is a buzzword. I have seen plans for cyclists over the years. The government has always known through census data that there is a huge population that depends on cycles, but nothing has changed for them on the road,” he says. “Now the situation has reached a tipping point. It is no longer cyclists versus cars — it is cars versus cars, something which is manifested in the increasing number of road rage cases. Now fights for parking space even lead to murder.”
Ironically, cyclists believe the only solution to their problem is switching to motorcycles.
“I am just waiting for my son to start earning. I would be happy to own a motorbike. In this city, a cycle is a symbol of poverty, a vehicle for inconsequential people. A pedestrian has more respect.”