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Delhi Dispatch

By Radhika Arora
on November 17, 2017

Loss of freedom of mobility makes me uncomfortable and claustrophobic.

A few years ago, on my first day as a student in Europe, I took a walk at 0100hrs. Not because I had to be someplace. But because I could.

Of course. No place, and no one is immune from sexual abuse. As the Harvey Weinstein saga of sexual harassment unfolded over a month ago in October, the #MeToo [hashtag] started by activist Tarana Burke, and popularized by actress Alyssa Milano, served as a catalyst to bring to the forefront the voices of the “every person.” Interestingly it also led to reflections by those who couldn’t bring themselves to #MeToo their stories, as articulated very well by writer Veronica Ruckh, “It doesn’t have to be “bad enough” for it to count. And regardless of whether I’m comfortable or you’re comfortable saying #MeToo, we all need to admit that we have a problem.” Parallel movements brought up stories of #ididittoo and #silenceisdeafening – perhaps an enabler to reflect on deliberate or unintentional behaviours which have led to those in a vulnerable position being exploited.

Nowhere in the world are the vulnerable spared from harassment. For those who reside in parts of the world where sexual violence against women (and men) is worse than others, there is solidarity in this global movement against the abuse of power, and in the strength of the voices brought together by a simple hashtag. Thousands marched in a #MeToo march in support of survivors of sexual harassment in Los Angeles last Sunday. I can only hope that such movements, lead to a greater recognition of the risk of day-to-day sexual harassment that women and others are at risk of. The ever looming risk of sexual harassment may play out in other ways as well, like young girls being kept home from school, being denied the opportunity to play or work outside of the home space (though harassment by those known to the victims is fairly common as well).

Meanwhile, on a somewhat different note, yet related, because of its impact on mobility – hazardous levels of air pollution in Delhi, and across much of the northern parts of the Indian sub-continent have driven many of us indoors. I write this introduction from my apartment in Delhi, where I have been indoors with an air-purifier running 24×7. There is little incentive to step into the smog filled city. Speaking of freedom of mobility, hundreds braved the smog to walk Pride and commemorate 10 years of Delhi Pride – a much needed splash of color to break up the monotonous gray Delhi skies. But three hours of being outdoors left me exhausted – the air is debilitating.  Reading about the impact of extreme levels of air pollution on our health doesn’t help. This is not good. I miss going on my long evening walks. I miss being able to have the option of going out for a run. I miss the right to be able to breathe (even the National Green Tribunal believes the right to life has been ‘infringed with impunity’). Of course, as I whine about the air (and reminisce about the sunny, blue Belgian sky – an oxymoron surely!), I acknowledge the privilege of being able to afford an air purifier, mask and have the luxury of being indoors. Quite unlike the millions who sleep and work in the open, and have no recourse to clean air, or the millions of women who cook indoors on wood fire. Furthermore, the increase in pollution is certainly not helping the country’s growing burden of Non-communicable Diseases. The Lancet’s First comprehensive analysis of health in India estimates that household and ambient outdoor pollution are responsible for almost 10% of the disease burden in India in 2016. Currently, those of us in Delhi are living the numbers. The media tells us that breathing the air in Delhi is akin to smoking over 44 cigarettes a day. Hospitals have seen an exponential rise in respiratory disorders.

For now. I’m going to put on a mask and go for a gentle stroll. Dystopia does not feel like the future, nor, fiction. We’re living it. Loss of mobility and freedom is unpardonable whether due to harassment on the street, a polluted environment, lack of urban infrastructure. It’s time for solutions.

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