Neo Liberalism And The Decline Of The Roadster In India



Roadster is the standard or as in Bengal we call it the ‘Bangla’ cycle. Its design was perfected around 1890 and it has not changed significantly since then. Many people think it is old fashioned and they want to go for ‘fancy’ cycles. However the roadster has a great resilience and remains the choice for millions all over the world. What is more in some parts of the Western world, where its popularity had declined after the Second World War, it is making a comeback.

In much of the world, the roadster is still the standard bicycle used for daily transportation. Mass-produced in Asia, they are exported in huge numbers (mainly from India, China, and Taiwan) to developing nations as far afield as Africa and Latin America. India’s Hero Cycles and Eastman Industries are still two of the world’s leading roadster manufacturers, while China’s Flying Pigeon was the single most popular vehicle in worldwide use. Due to their relative affordability, the strength and durability of steel frames and forks and their ability to be repaired by welding, and the ability of these bicycles to carry heavy payloads, the roadster is generally by far the most common bicycle in use in developing nations, with a particular importance for those in rural areas.

Traditional roadster models became largely obsolete in the English-speaking world and other parts of the Western world after the 1950s with the noticeable exceptions of the Netherlands and to a much lesser extent Belgium along with other parts of North-Western Europe. However, they are now becoming popular once more in many of those countries that they had largely disappeared from, due to the resurgence in the bicycle as local city transport where the roadster is ideally suited due to its upright riding position, ability to carry shopping loads, simplicity and low maintenance.

Neo Liberalism

Neo Liberalism appeared in 1979, with capitalism wanting more freedom for itself and less control by the state. So the Reagan – Thatcher consensus or privatization (what is now referred to as the neo-liberalism) gained currency in the West. In England, Thatcherism represented a systematic and decisive rejection and reversal of the post-war consensus, whereby the major political parties largely agreed on the central themes of Keynesianism, the welfare state, nationalised industry and close regulation of the British economy. In its place, Thatcherism attempted to promote low inflation, a smaller state and free markets through tight control of the money supply, privatisation and constraints on the labour movement. Neo – liberalism came to India in 1991, where it was presented as a package of ‘economic reforms’ for ‘Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation.’ It ended the ‘permit quota raj,’ allowed foreign companies to import, invest and set up their enterprises in India, and ushered in an era of new wealth for the rich and the middle classes at a tremendous cost to ecology.

Indian Bicycle Industry

India is the second largest manufacturer of bicycles in the world. The industry is classified into four segments — standard, premium, kids and exports. Demand for standard/roadster bicycles, which is the largest segment (accounting for half of all bicycles sold in 2020) is driven by government purchases. Government departments procure these bicycles through a tender process and distribute under various welfare schemes. Demand for premium and kids bicycles (nearly 40 per cent) is driven by fitness and leisure needs. Exports and sales of other kinds of bicycles constitute the remaining 10 per cent demand.

Decline of the Roadster

In 1990, 90 percent bicycles produced in India were roadsters. By 2020 it has been reduced to 50 percent. What has happened?

After independence the import of bicycle was banned and India started manufacturing its own bicycles. Several important bicycle companies came up – Sen Raleigh in Asansol, Hercules/BSA in Chennai, Atlas, Hero and Avon in Punjab (In those days Haryana was not formed).

However in 1991 imports again began. Neo liberalism also brought new wealth and an affluent middle class was born. At the same time concern about climate, global warming and health consciousness increased. This gave rise to a new demand for bicycles from this class and the market for Premium/Fancy cycle was born. And in a few years along with the new generation of kids, the market for kids also came into being. Since then the market share of fancy and kid’s bicycles has continuously increased.

The Problems of Fancy Bicycles in India

The fancy bicycle is transitory in nature – both in history and in the life of the owner of the bicycle. In the world it appeared in the West with MTB after the Second World War and the prestige of the roadster declined. Now the roadster is coming back because it is a more comfortable and reliable machine.

As the word suggests the fancy bicycle is neither utilitarian like the standard/roadster nor professional. It is just fancy used for recreational purposes. Most of the owners use it for weekends only. They normally have a fossil fuel based vehicle – a motor cycle/scooter/car for daily use. Today many of them are environmentally conscious and promote bicycle for environment and health reasons. Many of them are members of the cycle clubs, Rotary clubs, Lions clubs etc. Obviously they belong to relatively affluent middle class.

However in most cases this fancy lasts a few years only. A few of them graduate to professional levels. Most give up after a few years. There are many reasons. As they grow, other pressures – job, family, relatives, and friends grow and they increasingly don’t find time during the weekends. The very jobs that gave them high salaries to indulge in buying these bicycles, do not allow them, within a few years, the time to ride these bicycles! Then they are not able to maintain it. In India the infrastructure for maintenance for bicycle with gears is not very good. Upper class/caste Indians have very poor culture of maintenance – they don’t dirty their hands. Soon the cycle gathers dust. Most gated communities in big cities are full of these abandoned fancy bicycles. The second hand market for them is not good either. So they are offered at half the cost within a few years. It is another example of wasteful nature of the capitalist society.

Role of the Bicycle Clubs

The bicycle clubs have played a big role in promoting these fancy bicycles. In most cities in India the owner of these fancy bicycles is also a good cyclist and is often a prominent member of the local cycle club. In some cases a prominent member of these clubs graduated in starting a shop sensing that in the city there is no good shop or maintenance facilities for these bicycles.

Kolkata Cycle Samaj

However among these clubs the Kolkata Cycle Samaj is an exception. The main reason is its history. In Kolkata about a decade ago, under the pressure of car owners, the Kolkata police banned bicycle on more than hundred roads. They also started making cyclist pay a fine of hundred rupees for violating the ban. Naturally there was uproar. The greatest sufferers were the working class members for whom the bicycle was a necessity and their jobs involved in travelling on these roads. Kolkata Cycle Samaj was born with the objective of removing this ban. While they have not fully succeeded in it they have created a great awareness about the bicycle and urban transport issues all over the country and even abroad. Its face book page has 5800 members!

What can the Bicycle Clubs do?

  1. In my opinion bicycle clubs should promote bicycle among common people and help them to acquire one. Most poor people aspire to own a bicycle. Our general aim should be every Indian family should own at least one ladies roadster bicycle. I say ladies because a ladies bicycle can be used by both men and women in the family. Also it has been shown that for normal commuting a ladies bicycle gives a more comfortable ride.
  2. Every bicycle club should run a bicycle gift programme for the need person in their locality/town/city. On an average for every fancy bicycle you can purchase two roadsters. So if someone buying a new bicycle and has a budget of more than ten thousand it will be a good idea to purchase tow roadster – one for herself and one to gift.
  3. Every bicycle club should have a good relation with a good bicycle maintenance mechanic. They should support him; help him to acquire a good location, a good shop/kiosk. In a small town it can even be a cycle assembly shop or used for restoring old cycles.

The Future

The world is going through a global emergency and we have a window of just about a decade to act to survive! If we do survive than much of the present wasteful society will have to go and with that the fancy bicycles will also go along with all the fossil fuel based transport. Cities will shrink in size. Urban transport will mainly depend on roadster and roadster based cycle rickshaws, cargo cycles and so on.

We live on hope. To keep the hope alive, in the bicycle sector let us promote the roadsters and get rid of our fossil fuel based vehicles!

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: [email protected]


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