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BW Businessworld

Can Covid-19 finally bring a long-awaited Cycle Revolution in India?

The need to promote cycling as a means for personal transportation has never been more necessary than now. Pankaj Munjal, Chairman & MD, Hero Cycles shared his views on this.

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It is in the nature of adversity to bring out the best in people. Covid-19 pandemic has placed severe restrictions on people to maintain strict social distancing to control the pandemic. On June 3rd – in the eve of the World Bicycle Day – a group of bicycle enthusiasts from West Bengal (a state severely impacted by the pandemic) has written an open letter to the state’s Chief Minister to promote cycling as a primary and safe mode of transport given the pandemic outbreak. They demanded the ban of cycling be lifted along many of Kolkata roads and bicycle lanes to be demarcated on major roads. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also has necessitated this change by advocating the use of cycling to limit physical contact and get adequate physical activity during this period.


To mention, promoting cycling - one of the most sustainable modes of transportation - has huge environmental and economic benefits. A TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) study from last year estimated that if bicycles were to substitute the two and four-wheelers used for short-distance trips, it can result in an annual benefit of Rs 1.8 trillion i.e. 1.6 per cent of India’s GDP (for the year 2015-16). It is possible since it has zero dependence on fossil fuels, zero emissions and pollution, health benefits from increased physical activity, besides being an affordable means of mobility for low-income households.    


Pankaj Munjal, Chairman & MD, Hero Cycles speaking at the recent BW Sustainability Dialogues virtual event organized by BW Businessworld shared a figure: 90 million people in India ride bicycles a day. He then questioned: what will happen if the number becomes double? What he was pointing out was that in India, particularly in rural areas, where people are severely dependant on cycles as means of transportation to jobs, education, and health facilities, the transformation could be huge if more cycles are provided to them. Also, Munjal added: 25 crore Indians everyday walk to work, school, and finish daily chores, of which many just drop when faced with a challenge like rainfall, etc. “Imagine the net impact on the GDP, if those people don’t need to drop – only if they have a cycle as a means of personal transportation,” Munjal said. Even, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reiterates on the benefits that investing in pedestrians and cyclists can save lives, help protect the environment, and support poverty reduction.


Despite the pandemic outbreak and government-enforced lockdowns impacting the economy, Hero Cycles earlier stated that it was confident about its strong growth. This is being predicated since the company saw 600 times rise in sales in its overseas markets (such as the UK and Germany) in April 2020, against the figures in April last year. This entails that people are increasingly relying on cycles as a safe mode of transportation during this Covid-19 pandemic. The company looks forward to a substantial growth, with plans to capture 10 per cent of the global bicycle market by 2023 (currently 5 per cent). Earlier, Hero Cycles initiated a campaign asking governments across the world to push for an urban infrastructural shift towards bicycle-friendly roads and promote a behavioural change to mark the World Bicycle Day on Wednesday. In the UK, for example, the government has initiated a major infrastructure push for cycle-friendly roads as a part of lifting the coronavirus lockdown. How close is India in finally having a much-needed cycle revolution?


The push for increased adoption of cycles as a means of transportation is not new. Under the Smart Cities Mission, the government has been planning cities where the use of cycles for personal transportation can be facilitated, which has both economic and environmental benefits. State governments and municipal corporations in proposed “smart cities” of Bhopal, Pune, Thane among others, are working towards including cycling in the broader development plan for the city. However, many experts are of the opinion that India is not yet ready to bring in policy actions to make the cycle revolution a reality. Given the country is already facing a severe economic crisis, Munjal stated that the government needs to extend support in order to take off. “I would love to see cities with decongested roads where health families are cycling in the city centers,” Munjal said.


The TERI study stated that one of how this large scale adoption of cycles (especially in rural regions) could be achieved is by reducing the GST rate on bicycles that costs less than Rs 5,000 from the existing 12 per cent to the lowest rate of 5 per cent. A ‘Bicycle Development Council’ needs to be established for the development of the sector, the study suggests. As the lockdown is being lifted in phases and with the need to maintain the social distancing has become critical like never before, the need to enforce greater stress on cycling should become more apparent. Hero Cycles’ Road Pe Dikhegi Tabhi to Chalegi campaign has been raising awareness for citizens to press for their right to cycle and demand safer roads and dedicated cycling spaces from urban authorities. The campaign that was launched two years ago has become more relevant during this pandemic times.  


However, skies don’t seem positive for every bicycle company in India. A leading bicycle company Atlas cycles has shut its last manufacturing unit in Sahibabad, just outside the national capital due to lack of funds. However, the company also insists that the shutdown is temporary and will resume operations once it is able to raise funds. To have cycling play a significant role in people’s lives, it is critical for every player in the sector to play their part properly. Experts believe a cycling ecosystem is absent that prevents it to be a preferred mobility solution for all sections. Also, as agreed by many conscious individuals, there needs to be a mindset change in understanding the environmental impacts of the high usage of automobiles. It won't be inaccurate to say - this pandemic has brought an eventual break for making those changes in mind-set and lifestyle – consequently, a cycle revolution is not afar.