Shortly after her husband's death, Nandakini Aryal learnt to ride a cycle. The two-wheeler not only helped her become more independent, but also boosted her dairy business. She would hang 17 jugs on her bicycle handles and travel to the market everyday selling 100 litres of milk and yoghurt. With a daily income of 1,500, she was able to save enough to buy back her house and invest in a few acres of land. Aryal, who is lovingly called Cycle Aama by locals says that if it wasn't for her cycle she wouldn't have been able to look after her family.
Nepalis have been using cycles long before cars made their way into the country. Seen as status symbols at one time, cycles may not carry the same prestige these days, but they are intrinsically linked to the livelihood and prosperity of many. The self-employed and small business owners like Aryal particularly reliant on pedal power.
In the Tarai, most households have at least one cycle. Apart from being a means of transport, the two-wheelers even serve as ambulances in the region and make it possible for activists, health care volunteers, and midwifes to travel to remote areas where there are no roads or public transport. Access to cycles has also increased the attendance rate of female students and kept them from dropping out.
"Cycles have made a big difference in the lives of Tarai women," says Birganj-based journalist Chandra Kishor Jha. "It has helped them come out of the confines of their house, made them more confident, encouraged them to take up jobs and made them economically independent."
There is a popular saying in Chitwan that women who can't ride bicycles won't get married and the dairy industry here is a stellar example of women on wheels pedalling to prosperity. Bishnu Rimal of GEFONT, a labour union close to the UML, says he still remembers how the road in Jhapa would turn into a sea of red when 2,500 sari-clad women rode home after finishing their shifts at the garment factories fifteen years ago.
Although not as popular as in the Tarai, 50,000 cycles ply on the roads of the capital. 20 years ago, 6.6 per cent of residents rode bikes. In the absence of public transport, cycles were the lifeline which connected the villages on the outskirts of the Valley to the centre.
As the living standard of the Kathmandu's middle class rises so has their demand motorbikes and cars. That coupled with unsafe roads has meant that cycle use in the Valley has dropped to 1.6 per cent. However, cycles are still essential for business. Each day, almost 1,000 cycles ferry vegetables and fruits from the Kalimati market through the narrow alleys and deliver it to wholesalers throughout Kathmandu.
According to Bidur Acharya of the Kalimati Fruits and Vegetables Market Development Committee, almost 40 per cent of the total stock is cleared by cycles. Similarly, almost 50 per cent of LPG gas cylinders are ferried from depots to homes on cycles.
"For 41 years till I retired in 2008, I pedalled to work every day and took my bike all around the city. My colleagues in Singha Darbar used to respect me a lot because back then owning a cycle was a status symbol much like owning a car is today," reminisces Hari Prasad Dahal.
With the crippling fuel crisis and an inefficient public transportation system, cycles have become an environmentally friendly alternative for urban Nepalis. More and more are hopping onto their two wheelers to commute to work and groups like Kathmandu Cycle City are lobbying with the government to build bicycle lanes and make the capital a cycle-friendly city by 2020. Cycling as a hobby has also caught up as Valley residents look to escape the concrete jungle and explore the countryside.
Despite its evolving roles, many Nepali can still trace their progress back to the the two-wheelers.
Bihar is boosting female literacy by distributing free bicycles
Cyclists and the city, BHRIKUTI RAI
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