October 09, 2013

Stop pedaling fiction about Kolkata

I’ve been bemused by the outrage in certain national newspapers, many of them not even published in Kolkata, that have editorialised and expressed anger at the so-called cycling ban in Kolkata. On television, I heard a breathless anchor, who has clearly never seen a street in Kolkata, holding forth on how every road in the city deserved a dedicated cycling lane. As usual, the CPI(M) and its friends, fellow travellers and in-laws in the Fourth Estate are cooking up a fictional issue to blame the Trinamool Congress.

So what are the facts? For some years now, in keeping with the norm in major cities of the world, Kolkata has had cycling restrictions on heavy-traffic roads. This prevents accidents and saves lives, including those of cyclists who otherwise have to negotiate tight traffic that allows neither them nor bigger vehicles much room for manoeuvre.

These restrictions were in place well before Trinamool came to office in West Bengal. To be fair, they were not political decisions but professional calls taken by the traffic police. No new streets have been added under the Trinamool government to the “cycling restricted” areas in Kolkata. It’s the same as it was in 2011, when the Delhi media’s Most Favoured Party was still running West Bengal.

What has happened is this. Recently, the government brought certain areas of Greater Kolkata, outside the core urban zone, within the remit of Kolkata Police. This was aimed at improving law and order, the crime situation and services to the people. In line with its new mandate, Kolkata Police undertook a traffic survey of these new areas in Greater Kolkata and recommended cycling restrictions on some heavy-traffic streets. A notification to this effect was issued recently. That’s all.

I spoke to editors of two major newspapers in Kolkata. They were downright bewildered by the supposed controversy and both termed it a “non-issue”. One of them told me he couldn’t understand why Reuters and BBC, NDTV and Hindu covered it, “when even local papers ignored it… That should have told them something surely…”

The second Kolkata editor was more cutting. “It seems to be an issue,” he said, “only among Delhi media–persons who have no idea of Kolkata’s traffic and geography.” Don’t worry, I felt like telling him, they generally have no idea about Kolkata’s – and West Bengal’s – politics either.