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Cycling: Lifestyle and Lifeline of Rural India

Despite its obvious benefits as a cheap, environment friendly and portable tool for commute, bicycles continue to be held in low regard for today’s increasingly aspirational rural youth

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Ever since 1890, when bicycles were first introduced to India, cycling has been the surest way to travel in rural India. In the early 19th century, few people in India could afford cars or motorcycles. Hence, bicycles became ubiquitous and even bought by the government in large numbers for its vast postal network. Owing to its expansive and diverse geographic terrain, India’s remotest citizens have to traverse over hills and plateaus, vast plains, across streams and forests. Bicycles are used by milk vendors, artisans, farmers, small traders and children going to schools. Food carts and rickshaws use modified forms of the bicycle to ply their wares. Aside from the dust and haze of motor vehicle exhaust, bicycles are the most visible element of life in the villages. Unfortunately, despite its obvious benefits as a cheap, environment friendly and portable tool for commute, bicycles continue to be held in low regard for today’s increasingly aspirational rural youth.

Unsustainable Motor Vehicle Growth
As per the 2011 census, 68.8% of India’s citizens reside in what developmental economists classify as rural areas. This turns out to be about 83.3 crore in absolute numbers. The total number of vehicles owned by people in 1951 was 0.3 million but by 2015, this number increased to 210 million out of which 73.5% was the proportion of two-wheelers and 13.6% were cars, jeeps and taxis. The proportion of mass transport vehicles such as buses declined to 1%. But developing transport solutions around motor vehicles has debilitating negative externalities. These include local and global air pollution and emission of harmful greenhouse gases such as CO, CO2 and NO2, dependence on petrochemicals, which is projected to go up to USD 105 billion in import bills this financial year, traffic congestion, road accidents, noise and landscape clutter. Clearly, that is not a sustainable development model for rural India. For  nearly 2/3rds of India’s population that makes up what the father of this nation once called the ‘soul’ of  this country, mobility challenges are real and pervasive.

Mobility challenges of the Rural Poor
According to a NITI Aayog paper titled, ‘Changing Structure of Rural Economy of India Implications for Employment and Growth’, the rural economy contributes 46% to the national income. Despite trends toward urbanization, over half of the population is likely to remain rural in 2050. Today, 2/3rd of rural income is generated by non-agricultural activities and half of all value added to the manufacturing sector has come from rural regions. However, no significant employment gains or reduction in disparity in worker production have been achieved. Also, about 72.4% of India’s workforce resides in rural areas. An overwhelming number of them are poor, landless laborers, wandering artisans, small traders, daily wagers and peasants.

For these people, with low literacy rates and low levels of awareness, walking to their destinations is the cheapest and most practical way to get work done. It is estimated that 1 out of every 5 non-agricultural workers commute to work on foot.

Mobilizing Women for Empowerment
In 1991, district collector, Sheela Rani Chungat, launched a new literacy drive in the villages of Puddukottai in Tamil Nadu. 50,000 women were encouraged to learn how to ride bicycles. The original scheme had four elements: literacy, arithmetic, awareness and application. Ms Chungat added a fifth element, namely, mobility.

The program was a resounding success with women being seen using bicycles to make dozens of utility trips each day. Fetching water, carrying bundles of ripe stalk after the harvest, delivering lunches to the men-folk working in the fields, ferrying their children to schools and hospitals, these remarkable women have changed perceptions of development among policy makers up in Delhi.

Making Women the Center of Policy Initiatives for Youth
Marketers have noted that more rural youth desire to enhance their social standing among peers and are making extensive use of digital technology. However, most studies on rural aspirations tend to focus on the male gender. On the other hand, empowering women, observes a United Nations report aptly titled, ‘Rural Women in India: The Invisible Lifeline of Rural community’, translates into healthier families, enables households to break the vicious cycle of poverty and strengthens the economy. Adding the element of mobility to the rural girl child’s daily trip to school with the aid of a bicycle enhances her motivations to learn, travel and become more aware and confident.

How to Increase Cycle Ownership
According to estimates, global cycle ownership is 42% of the world’s population but in India, this proportion stands at a meager 9%. Bicycles need to be promoted, as a lifestyleoption for today’s millennial generation where almost everybody has a mobile. This is the most intelligent way to achieve sustainable development goals of health for all, considering rising incidences of lifestyle diseases, even in rural India. Some form of micro-finance should be made available to low-income families to enhance their ability to purchase a bicycle. Producers of bicycles and spare parts need greater incentives to meet the cost of inputs in line with the Technology Upgradation Scheme for the textile industry. GST tax rates, too, need to be lowered from the present 12%. Greater innovation is required to design bicycles with sturdier materials and frames so that heavy loads can be easily carried.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Pankaj Munjal

Pankaj Munjal is Chairman and Managing Director at Hero Cycles.

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