[ Echo of India : 30 June 2012 ; Globeistan ]
On June 30, Indian Union’s secretary for urban development Sudhir Krishna came to Kolkata for a holy purpose. The tram system of Kolkata that had been systematically decimated by the Left Front government was at the centre of his agenda. Krishna preached that the trams need to be ‘revived’, even expanded. Why so? Because it has dawned that trams are eco-friendly and major cities in the world are in a tram revival or acquisition spree. The browns need to play catch up. Hence the tram system in Kolkata needs to be revived, expanded and even initiated in other cities. Trams pollute much less than cars per person carried. So far so good.
We need to appreciate the deep farce that such meetings, pronouncements and decisions often constitute. The meeting in question was also graced by the august presence of Police Commissioner of Kolkata. While lesser members of the public are not allowed to hear the deliberations between public servants on public affairs, one can imagine that the Police Commissioner of Kolkata nodded in agreement when Sudhir Krishna hit the green notes about the tram’s energy efficiency and eco-friendliness, how the tram is a less-polluting transport medium of the future. After all, in such green pronouncements, everyone needs to nod their head. Everyone needs to show that are in sync with the good thoughts and ideas permeating the planet. By his nods and occasional quips, the Commissioner might have fancies himself of being a green warrior, in his small way. Such are the tales of heroism that forever go unsung. Bengal can be such an ungrateful place.
At the end of the day, secretary Krishna left for Delhi, a city where the government has ensured that cycling lanes have been demarcated in a big way. While, the unfortunate citizens of Kolkata are stuck with the police that it has, with its lip-service to ecological sustainability, it is its ruthless extortion service that has a special bearing with all this green-talk.
With the approval of the police commissioner, and his predecessor, the Kolkata police has declared more than 30 main roads off limits for bicycles. Kolkata must be one of those rare cities of the world that shamelessly sports large signs on the main roads prohibiting bicycles. Kolkata’s police forces can put up as many shabby posters as they want for the Environment Day. It can organize as many football matches it wants as cheap public relation exercises. That does not take away the reality of the police. The green sheen fades away when the police wait in the streets as stealthy hyenas to pounce upon a hapless person on a bicycle. This bicycle rider was possibly the only person on the street who was not contributing to pollution. For the past few years, a system of daily oppression is executed on Kolkata’s streets. The bicyclers, largely poor, earn a daily wage of less than 150 Rupees. Their ‘crime’ of riding bicycles is ‘fined’ by the police on a sliding scale of Rupees 80 to Rupees 100. The receipt for this ‘fine’ is a chit of paper with an illegible rubber-stamp and an equally illegible signature. The failure to pay Rupees 100, quite common in urban Montekland, leads to confiscation of the bicycle and a date to appear in front of the police. The bicycles often have parts missing when they are recovered. Such is the racket that is at play. Such is the conspiracy against those very people of Kolkata who want to use a non-polluting transport mode. It is a war against the poor and against the city. Some police honchos will sit on environment panels, will talk with conviction about the importance of curbing pollution in the company of the rich and famous in elite clubs. In this sordid theatre, they will have ample time to play their ‘respectable citizen’ role. But the daily wage earner who had to part with more than half of his earning for the sin of riding a bicycle knows these creatures too well. Real fangs are bared in these moments when the green mask falls off the face of the extortionist. The money makes its way up – how high does it get, we will never know. Our Right to Information has limits.
Contrary to Kolkata, many cities of the world have large zones demarcated to be car and bus free, so that maximal mobility can be ensured for the largest number of people without pollution. It is only the brown sahibs who refuse to walk the last 250 metres. What is so special about the brown sahibs that walking does not sit well with their constitution? The National Urban Transport policy, formulated by the Union Urban Development ministry, clearly lays out that bicycling should be preferentially encourages over motorized transport, by earmarking bicycle lanes wherever possible. Did Sudhir Krishna quiz the Police Commissioner of Kolkata about the reason why the policy had been turned on its head in the city? The police commissioner of Kolkata is the product of the force he heads. Why blame only him? He is just the latest.