Ashok Behera, the 36-year-old mason from Odisha cycled 1100 kilometres in seven days, all the way home to Ganjam district from Chennai, his wife Namita riding pillion. Once again the roadster,  a cycle design perfected more than a 100 years ago proved to be reliable. During this lock out period this kind of performance was repeated by several workers all over the country.

The bicycle was invented more than 200 years ago by a prolific German inventor, Baron Karl Von Drais. His first reported ride was on June 12, 1817, in Mannheim in Germany. His bicycle had neither a chain nor any pedals! Yet, from this simple start, by 1890 the standard cycle or ‘roadster’ has come into being. This type of bicycle is still used by millions of commuters and workers all over the world.

The standard roadster cycle ruled the world till the Second World War. Thereafter the world got split into two camps – on one hand, the developed nations of the world, mainly in the West, including Japan and Australia; and, on the other, the developing nations or the third world. The bicycle in the West became mainly a sport-and-hobby bicycle and the roadster became a relic of the past. Most people changed over to cars or public transport. In the last few decades, though, because of awareness of global warming and pollution, the bicycle is once again becoming popular in the West, though still mainly for recreational purposes. Such usage, though, so far, has not reduced the car mileage per capita in the West.

Within the developing world, of course, there has been a class divide with the rich aping the West and the poor sticking to relatively older technologies. This is often seen through the prism of the debate about ‘India (rich) and Bharat (poor)’, which became popular in the last quarter of the 20th century. In the context of the bicycle, of course, the standard roadster represents ‘Bharat’ and the  multi-geared fancy bicycle represents ‘India’. As a rule, those who have fancy bicycles also own cars, motorcycles or scooters, and they use the bicycle, like in the West, mainly for recreational purposes.

However, the standard roadster cycle still rules the Indian market. Out of some 150 million bicycles in India more than 130 million are the old type or Roadsters. They are manufactured by four  well established brands –Hercules, Atlas, Hero and Avon. Today they would cost a little less than Rs. 5000/- less than half the price of a decent smart phone. They are easy to maintain at home and all the repairs and overhauling can be done by a local cycle repair shop. If one budgeted about 5 % of the cost per year for maintenance, then the roadster can last up to 50 years easily.

This is because the majority of bicycle users in India are either those who commute over small distances or people who use their bicycles to run small businesses. The latter kind of bicycles are slightly modified – larger back carriers, old-fashioned stand, extra springs and stronger tyres to carry the extra load and survive the wear and tear. Workers from a wide variety of professions use them to earn their livelihoods. For an investment of about five thousand rupees, they can earn a net profit of fifteen thousand rupees per month in a city like Hyderabad. This is probably the most successful model of micro-entrepreneurship in India. In addition such workers provide a wide variety of goods and services at affordable prices. And yet these people do not get the respect due to them from the government, police and even ordinary people, although all of us benefit from their work.

The Immediate Future

It is obvious that in India the roadster is not going away. Even today 70 percent of the bicycles manufactured in India are roadsters. The roadster, with its various modifications, remains the backbone of India’s urban transport system. Populist programmes like free bicycle schemes for school children will also continue to support the roadster cycle industry. We should also remember that the tricycle in its various designs –rickshaw, ice cream vendors shop, cargo vehicle for municipalities’ waste disposal programmes, variety of vendors – all have design based on the roadster and are maintained by the same repair shops.

The basic problem is created by fossil fuel-based transport, which have occupied our road space, created urban traffic jams and raised air pollution to dangerous levels. This is what we must work to reduce. Creating special bicycle lanes will not solve the problem, and it will anyway take up further urban space. This approach mainly serves the construction industry. The money wasted on such programmes can be better utilised in improving public transport and discouraging private cars.

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: t.vijayendra@gmail.com


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