The women of Assam and the North-East have been pathbreakers in India when it comes to bicycling as a means of daily commuting. Rather than being something uncommon, it is very ubiquitous to see girls and ladies in the region going about their business on bicycles. In fact, in certain districts, more women use bicycles than their male counterparts.
Although economic prosperity and steps by the government have given way to many women “upgrading” to gearless scooters or step-throughs, the bicycle remains a powerful symbol of women empowerment and gender equality in the region.
The Guwahati Active Mobility Forum (GAMOF) has made an effort to bring into focus stories of women and girls from different parts of the city who use bicycles as a regular mode of commute for their work or education. In this third and last part of the series, we bring you stories of four more such inspirational ladies from Guwahati.
All these women have been cycling, either to their respective workplaces or educational institutions or to run errands or to shop or even travel to meet their friends nearby. Their choice of using bicycles has not only improved their health but also the health of the city and its people by not contributing to the growing pollution and congestion levels in Guwahati.
Arpana Deka Thakuria, 40, Diagnostic Lab Nurse
Aparna Deka Thakuria learnt cycling during her childhood. She utilised this childhood skill during the pandemic-induced lockdowns in the first half of 2020 by cycling to work to cut down on her travel expenses. Now, even with the lockdowns gone, she cycles daily. Her workplace is 5 km away which requires her to cycle an average of 10 km daily and she occasionally cycles to nearby places for groceries and shopping as well. Her family members are extremely supportive of her choice of mode of communication.
However, she admits there are minor challenges. With mostly-empty roads during the lockdown period, it was a breeze to travel from home to work and back on her bicycle. But with increasing vehicular traffic after the lockdown, she needs to be mindful of the traffic. Nevertheless, she has gained a lot of confidence to ride in peak traffic and nowadays moves easily through. She recalls an incident when she had to defend her road space from a rowdy driver — an ironic rite of passage that all regular bicycle commuters in the city need to go through, unfortunately. Apart from this incident, she does not recall any sour incidents.
Presently she is the only one in her office who cycles to work. She agrees that more cycle parking spaces in the city will help and encourage more people like her to take out their bicycles to work.
Bhanita Boro, 27, School Staff
Bhanita Boro works in a private school in Guwahati and does her daily 6 km one-way commute to work on a bicycle; with her daughter on a pillion who studies in the same school. Bhanita fondly recollects her childhood when she learnt cycling and enjoyed it like any other school kid. Now as a mother of a seven-year-old daughter, she has made a conscious choice of using her bicycle as a regular mode of commute. She is happy that her family has let her decide whether she finds cycling comfortable and use it regularly. Even her school administration is supportive and has gifted her co-passenger with a helmet.
Bhanita was all smiles when asked if she has faced any inconvenience when cycling. She says that it is all okay; she minds her lane and maintains a safe distance from other vehicles. She loves cycling on good roads! She has learnt to manoeuvre her bicycle and ride in heavy traffic and rush hour quite well.
However, she does feel that the urban infrastructure can be improved to make cycling more comfortable and safer at night – especially for women. She feels that good roads with proper lighting will encourage women like her to take up cycling and even venture out when it is dark.
Jyotima Deka, 35, Water Treatment Chemist
Jyotima Deka works as a chemist at the water treatment plant in IIT Guwahati. She rides from her home to the nearby Brahmaputra river ghat and takes a ferry to cross the river. She then rides the rest of the way to the IIT campus in North Guwahati. She pedals for approximately 12 km in her daily commute. Once when she missed the last ferry back to Guwahati, she cycled back home, despite her husband offering to pick her up in his car. She rode more than 25 kilometres that day!
Like many others, she was compelled to use her bicycle to travel during the lockdown. Now she has gained confidence and prefers riding to work rather than taking the staff bus. Bicycling helps her to manage time better, remove her dependency on staff bus and stay healthy.
Jyotima grew up in North Guwahati and she recollects that she used to cycle a lot during her school and college days. She recounted that it was quite common for the womenfolk to use bicycles to move around. She observes that at present, a lot of women use bicycles to travel for their work in the IIT campus from nearby places. Before the lockdown, even she kept a cycle at the IIT campus that she used to move around within the campus.
But, like most cyclists, Jyotima faces problems too. Her biggest irk are errant city bus and tempo drivers pulling up without signal and on undesignated stoppages. Such rash driving and rule violations, besides being a traffic hazard, forces her to slow down and use extra effort in navigating and overtaking unanticipated diversions. Apart from an encouraging family and a husband who shares her bicycle, she has inspired others to take up cycling, including a colleague and her 6-year-old daughter. Cycling has helped Jyotima keep fit and she feels proud that she does not pollute or contribute towards the growing congestion levels in the city.
Jyotima has a beautiful message to share — she feels people get influenced by their environment and people in the IIT campus take up cycling because the environment inside is conducive and cycling friendly. Therefore, if people see bicycles around them, they will be encouraged to take it up more.
Kanchan Kumari Sah, 22, College Student
Kanchan Kumari Sah is studying to become an optometrist at Sri Sankaradeva Nethralaya. She started cycling when she was in the second standard and she has loved it since. Now, as an aspiring healthcare professional, she uses her bicycle to commute to her institution. Kanchan says that using the bicycle gives her freedom and saves both time and money. It takes her about 30 minutes to cover the 5 km distance from home to her institution, which is more efficient in terms of time than any other mode of communication.
Kanchan has not faced any challenges in her regular bicycle commute, except rash and errant drivers on the road. But she keeps cycling undeterred. She observes that she is the only student and woman in her institution who uses a bicycle. Kanchan wishes that there are dedicated cycling lanes in the city, which would encourage more women to cycle. She also mentions that proper parking infrastructure is required to make bicycling more practical.
Guwahati Active Mobility Forum (GAMOF) is a group of active citizens working towards making Guwahati the most Walking and Cycling friendly city in India by 2030. Its members comprise Academicians and Educators, Entrepreneurs, Urban and Transport Planners, Businessmen, Media personnel as well as Government and Corporate employees.
**Gunjan Sharma also contributed to the article.