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Labour

How Cycle Mechanics Helped India Move

Considering the role of the cycle mechanic in the Indian economy of the 20th century is especially important today, as automobiles and motorcycles increasingly displace the bicycle as the preferred means of transit.

This article is the seventh in a series on the history of labour in India. The first part dealt with carpenters, the second with tailors, the third with textile workers in colonial India, the fourth with the artisans in the attar industry, the fifth with workers in the book industry and the sixth with workers in the papermaking industry.

Throughout much of the 20th century, India moved on bicycles and bicycles were an integral item of households, individual possessions and government offices. Bicycles are still an important part of mobility in India, but they have been increasingly displaced by motorcycles, cars and motorised public transport. As a vehicle of the masses, the bicycle nonetheless continues to provide an accessible form of mobility for people across a range of social classes.

Alongside the bicycle revolution came the rise of new forms of labour and new mechanical trades. Repair is often overlooked as a form of artisanship and craft, but cycle repair workers, who can still be found in small workshops and along the pavement of many Indian towns and metros, kept India moving for many decades. We all could tell stories of our bicycles and struggles with their breakdown. More than bicycle producers, we are fascinated by the neglected histories of those who repaired our bicycles and returned our suspended mobility.

The earliest Indian cycle mechanics repaired imported bicycles, while the rapid expansion of Indian cycle production from the mid 20th century sparked even greater demand for their skills. Historians David Arnold and Erich Dewald calculate that nearly 2.5 million bicycles were imported to India between 1910 and 1946, making the yearly average about 70,000. They further counted that nearly 1.2 million bicycles entered independent India just between 1947-48 and 1951-52. India manufacturer Sudhir Kumar Sen began producing bicycles in India after Independence by doing a tie-up with Nottingham based Raleigh Bicycle Company which produced the famous “Robin Hood” bicycles. At the same time, Janaki Das Kapur established the famous Atlas Cycle Industries in 1951 in Sonepat, Haryana. This local production marked a bicycle mania on Indian roads as they were produced in lakhs.

Affordable bicycles remade Indian cities as people accessed new spaces and moved between urban neighbourhoods for work and pleasure. In small towns and villages as well, the bicycle provided a new means for people to access work and social worlds. Bicycles have remained a symbol of economic and social mobility through the present, with grass roots political parties such as the Samajwadi Political Party embracing the bicycle as their election symbol.

From the start of the cycle revolution in the late 19th century, many mechanics were drawn from other artisan and craft worker backgrounds. They learned new skills specific to cycle repair, but also adapted long-standing mechanical skills from trades such as blacksmithing. Their forms of expertise kept Indians on the move throughout the twentieth century.

The earliest bicycles in India were objects of curiosity and leisure, imported and used by European colonialists and wealthy Indians beginning in the 1860s. Alongside these early cycles came a need to repair and maintain them. Racialized colonial hierarchies impacted early cycle mechanics, as some British cyclists in large cities such as Bombay clearly preferred European cycle mechanics. Throughout the late nineteenth-century, advertisements in the Times of India boasted of ‘bicycles repaired by a skilled English mechanic’.

Nonetheless, Indian craftworkers, artisans, and labourers rapidly adapted to the new industry and new technology, offering their skills to both European and Indian cyclists. Some of the earliest were employed directly by the merchants who imported and sold bicycles. The development of a skilled cadre of Indian cycle mechanics in major cities by the 1880s and 1890s allowed merchants and shopkeepers to provide ‘guarantees’ on the cycles that they sold. Cycle merchants boasted of their ‘repair departments’, which were sometimes led by ‘European engineers’ even as the physical work of repair was undertaken by Indian labourers.

Both men and women required repairs to their bicycles. In a fanciful story published in the journal of the Young Women’s Christian Association in Calcutta in 1899, a young woman imagined that her cycle came to life and spoke to her. After a pleasure ride, it admonished her for failing in its upkeep, saying ‘You forget I need to be well-oiled at regular intervals, and if I did not remind you, by this disagreeable noise, what a state I would get into!’ Although this tale of the talking bicycle ultimately served as a Christian parable, reminding girls to pray, it also reflected the degree to which cycling – and bicycle maintenance – were part of the popular imagination by the turn of the 20th century.

By the 1920s, cycles were increasingly accessible to people beyond the elite social classes, and cyclists developed new uses for the bicycle that often increased the need for repair. A municipal bylaw in Pune in 1929 warned residents that ‘no person shall carry another person on an ordinary bicycle’ within the municipality. Simultaneously, new provincial laws sought to tax goods ‘by the bicycle load’. These attempts to legislate what people carried on bicycles reflected the expanding use of the bicycle, as Indians turned to it to transport their families, friends and goods, rather than solely as a source of leisure.

A 1975 advertisement for Atlas bicycles in the Malabar Herald boasted of the quality of manufacturing and production (Malabar Herald, 22/11/1975).

The expanded use of the bicycle also included the development of the cycle rickshaw. Though first developed in the 1880s, cycle rickshaws were popularised across Asia in the 1920s and 1930s, first in Singapore and subsequently across South and South-East Asia. The evolution of new ways of using the bicycle – whether for the transport of goods, multiple people, or as a rickshaw – placed new pressures on its material and structure, and skilled bicycle mechanics were called upon to repair and maintain the machines when they faltered.

While the most prominent role for Indian bicycle mechanics before the mid 20th century was in the repair and maintenance of bicycles, some were also employed with the production of and repair of component parts. As Arnold has shown, even before the foundation of large successful Indian bicycle manufacturers following the post-colonial import tariffs of the 1950s, ‘the manufacturers of components such as bells, stands, and carriers had become virtual cottage industries’ in cities such as Ludhiana in Punjab. The manufacture of bicycle components remained a prominent industry in Punjab throughout the 20th century, employing 33,000 people as of 1984, approximately 7% of the state’s ‘small sector’ employment.

A number of small-scale Indian bicycle manufacturers operated in the interwar period, such as the Birla Group’s cycle factory in Bombay, which later was nationalised and became the National Bicycle Corporation of India. The foundation of large-scale bicycle manufacturing works in the 1950s and 1960s further expanded the demand for skilled cycle mechanics, with the Minister of Industry calling bicycle manufacturing ‘the fastest developing industry in the country’ in 1960. Classified ads from the period encouraged ‘technical personnel’ and ‘general mechanics’ to apply for employment in bicycle factories in cities such as Delhi. These workers primarily manufactured bicycles for the domestic market, though by 1979, India exported approximately 355,000 bicycles annually, out of approximately four million bicycles produced within the country.

An 1896 Urdu-English advertisement for cycles manufactured in Birmingham and sold in Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Rangoon (Mirror of English Manufactures, April 1896).

Bicycle manufacturing workshops thus expanded their demand for labor in mid-twentieth century India, drawing in fitters, metalsmiths, machinists, and other skilled Indian workers. Simultaneously, the work of cycle mechanics outside of these factories – often in small shops, stalls, or directly on the street – remained central to everyday transportation. A 1973 report from Cochin described thick bicycle traffic in parts of the city, with pedestrian routes sometimes blocked by cycles parked at the repair shops.

Considering the role of the cycle mechanic in the Indian economy of the 20th century is especially important today, as automobiles and motorcycles increasingly displace the bicycle as the preferred means of transit. The Atlas Company has shut down its manufacturing unit during the Covid period citing funding crisis.  Massive overpasses and freeways make Indian infrastructure increasingly hostile to the nation’s remaining cyclists, who are often those without the capital to afford other forms of transportation. And previously ubiquitous cycle mechanics seem to be disappearing from public view, even as their work remains vital to the mobility of poor and working class Indians, as well as newer communities of cycle enthusiasts.

Dr Amanda Lanzillo is a Lecturer in South Asian History at Brunel University. Follow her on Twitter  @lanzilloamanda.

Dr Arun Kumar is an Assistant Professor of British Imperial, Colonial & Post-colonial History at Nottingham University. Follow him on Twitter @arunk_patel.