Women and Bicycles in India Part I

Fabulous young ladies cycling in Bhimavaram

Social Enterprise, Bicycles, and India

I came here with the PSU MBA program to study Social Enterprise. It has been a diverse and challenging experience, much of it because of the vast differences between what is happening in India and my experiences in the U.S.A. For one, India has 1.3 BILLION people, while the U.S. has just 318 million– and most of the increases in recent years are solely due to immigration. India actually has more emigration, mostly to the U.S.; a country seen my many as some sort of utopian society with no problems. Hardly.

For another example, Americans have this grand fascination with the concept that everyone should be treated equally (okay, it says we are all created equally in the constitution, how it plays out is a different post entirely). The dominant Hindu religion, however, has been interpreted to say that a rigid caste system with discrimination is totally fine. While things are changing in India, these beliefs have traditionally held down lower classes, women, and atheists/ other religions. Add to that the fact that the roles of women, the government itself, and of business are all quite different and deeply rooted in traditions quite foreign to Americans, slap on some differences in infrastructure (or lack thereof), a gigantic government with legacy of British colonial rule, widespread poverty, and mix in a touch of tolerance for things like packs of feral dogs, huge piles of wet trash being eaten by cows, rubbish fires, and open-air urination/ defecation, and violá! You’ve got a vastly different situation than someone like me has ever seen before, and a whole slew of social problems awaiting activism and social innovation.

And no, that doesn’t mean India is awaiting rescuing by Americans who want to impose American solutions on India. It’s clear that American solutions are not and cannot be the answer, just as the British solutions (and Portuguese solutions, in Goa) were also not the answers.

Fortunately, foreign solutions need not be imposed. I have been most impressed with how social enterprise is run in India, by locals, for locals. Creative local solutions to social problems are the best! And in many ways, the problems in India do resemble those in the U.S., although the history, cultural context, and magnitude certainly differ. What I did do while I was here was simply learn and absorb. There is a lot to learn and bring back, and I am even thinking of coming back to India to learn more. People here can be incredibly smart and clever and many really do care a lot, especially about the most complex pervasive problem here, the cycle of poverty.

The best lesson is that getting out and getting things done really is all one has to do. I didn’t really think of myself as some sort of big activist, but doing what I can to help with issues in my community makes all the difference. Riding a bicycle every day, despite harassment, judgement, and difficulty is an activist stance and a great social innovation. Getting over the fear that anything you’re doing is insignificant is a great first step!

A few photos of social innovation

Bicycle rickshaws: A great business, but the bikes themselves are in pretty rough shape


Social enterprise: A tuc tuc driver provides free rides to those in need and is sensitive to those of any religion


Another bicycle business, this time for ice cream treats


Gandhi in front of the grand Assembly in Hyderabad


“Before”, aka Day 2, at the Hyderabad Public Gardens, a public space for respite from the city. Gardens are a marvelous social innovation.


A seed vending machine to encourage urban gardening. Turns out India has a skyrocketing obesity and diabetes problem

Basic Cycling-Related Observations:

1. Road safety is… lacking

My very first experience in India, after a mind-boggling time at the airport, was on the road in Hyderabad. W I L D. Anything goes. Seriously. For context, a student at IMT Hyderabad told me how her cousin lives in Boston and told her with wonder how Boston driving was “so organized”. If anyone coming from the U.S. has had to deal with Boston drivers aka “Massholes” going 15mph over the speed limit in those curving one-way avenues dotted by rotaries and zero room between you and parked cars, ‘organized’ is not exactly the term.

Until, that is, you see the roads in Indian cities. Everyone does whatever they want; no one slows down, traffic is coming from any direction at any time, there are no lanes (the lanes are painted on, but no one follows), and honking is how to keep from getting hit and let someone know you’re coming. Yes, there are cows in the roads, just as there are feral dogs in the road and sometimes chickens and pigs. (Other animals like rats will not be dodged.) Scooter bikes are the norm, with people fitting 2,3,4 on one scooter, and women often sitting sideways holding onto babies. Pedestrians get across to the other side by “frogger” method, aka just walking into traffic and dodging cars/ making them stop for you until you get to the other side. There is no other way! It is terrifying.

OK! Many more musings on this to come. India certainly has inspired me, and I will be posting on this a lot more in the coming weeks.

Happy New Year everyone!


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