With the increasing popularity of cycling in the National Capital, the challenge of ensuring the safety of cyclists, especially women cyclists, is a major challenge
On 26 October, a 35-year-old Delhi Police sub-inspector was arrested for sexually harassing and stalking three women and a minor girl in Delhi’s Dwarka between 17 and 20 October. One of the targets of the now dismissed sub-inspector Puneet Grewal, posted with the special cell (police’s anti-terror cell) was a young woman cycling around 8:30 am on the morning of 17 October.
The ongoing pandemic, resultant forced lockdown, and offices opting for work from home has meant that people have the time, plus the desire to leave their homes for some physical activity. With Delhi being the city that reports the highest number of cases of crimes against women, how safe is it for women cyclists? According to the latest NCRB data, there were 12,902 cases reported in 2019 — accounting for 28% of total such cases from metropolitan cities.
While Dwarka happens to be an area the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) plans to make a Smart sub-City, its crime rate does not inspire hope. Women we spoke with, who call Dwarka home, say they have decided to not cycle alone – no matter if it’s a busy rush hour which should act as a safety net from harassment; if they do, it is under stressful consideration of the risks that abound outside. It is a tragedy, a fear that is a constant in the Capital city, one that cannot be forgotten.
The incident perpetrated by the sub-inspector took place not so early in the morning in Dwarka. Retold by the woman on a video uploaded in Instagram, she spoke of the harrowing experience. “While cycling I noticed a small grey car, the rear glass of which was shattered and it was noticeable. As I was cycling along the footpath, the car driver started driving parallel to me. Since I ignored him and did not look towards the driver, he honked. At this, I signalled the driver to drive ahead. But the driver did not leave and he continued driving parallel to me,” the woman said in the video.
She added, “When I realised that something was not right, the man started greeting me by saying Hello. As I stopped and looked at him, the man asked for directions to reach Dwarka Sector-14. Before I could reply, I saw that he had unzipped his pants and was flashing me. I screamed at him and asked him to leave. At this, he started saying nasty things…I realised there was nobody there, cars were passing by…I was thinking whether I should start recording his acts on my cellphone or leave the place…”
She decided to cycle fast and get to a place with some people, reaching the back gate of DDA Sports Complex, in Sector-11 when she shouted for help. With this garnering some attention, the man sped off, with no number plate to identify the car by.
She reached home and called 1091, women’s helpline number. We contacted the woman, who told us she did not want to comment about the arrest but did inform us about the same. According to reports, she has refused to file a formal complaint.
Sanjana, another cyclist we spoke with, said that while there have been a couple of incidents of harassment she has faced, she has not informed the police. “Things happen but we just remain quiet. We are educated but prefer not to say anything because once the family gets to know about it they would just say, ‘don’t go cycling from tomorrow’.” A common factor, as many would like to put the onus of safety solely on the woman.
The first instance of harassment she faced, was on an evening when she decided to cycle to a sports store. “On my way back at this junction, I became aware of a car coming from behind me. It had slowed down so I thought they were waiting for me to go ahead, so as to take the left turn coming up. But suddenly they sped their vehicle and stopped right on my track. There were 4-5 boys inside, smiling at me. I didn’t look at them and just 50 metres ahead was a traffic light, so I got down from my cycle, backed it and then sped off home.”
There have been several incidents she tells us of being faced with a stream of sexual comments, and the relentless, lingering gaze of the male eye. “Other motorists make cycling unsafe anyway, especially in Dwarka as people love to take the wrong side and not obey traffic rules. For women, it becomes completely unsafe. If a man is there with me then it’s fine, but if you are by yourself or with another girl it isn’t okay.”
She says her sister too has been through some not-so-pleasant experiences. “With my sister it has happened so many times that she thinks many times before leaving the house. One day when around 10:30 am my sister ventured out to cycle, she was accosted by men on a bike and a car at the same time. Two cyclists, unknown to her, saw this and understood something was not right. One of them spoke to her, and when they (the harassers) saw this, they left and the cyclists saw to it that my sister reached the main road safely.”
“I shifted to Dwarka two years back, before this I was living in south Delhi and I will say that when we cross the Palam flyover (towards South Delhi), we feel relaxed, I ride to Connaught Place and people will give cyclists way but in Dwarka, it’s just not safe.”
She adds that no matter what time it is she does not feel safe in her home turf. “In Dwarka, I don’t find patrol vehicles. I have perhaps seen them twice in the last two months. In South Delhi, you do see PCR vans at many spots but not here, and the street lights here have no visibility.”
That’s why she prefers going cycling in groups, where “There will always be someone in the front and back of us, keeping an eye out. They ask us to ride on the left of them”, a new form of male chaperones born out of necessity. The groups are usually composed of 20 individuals with 5-6 women who come regularly.
But even in such scenarios, if you are left for a moment by yourself, there could be chances of harassment as she found recently on a ride back from Najafgarh wetlands. “We were returning from the link road around 7 am. Riders were dispersed and a man came from behind me in a Jaguar, he drove with one hand and the other had what looked like a glass of whisky. He slowed his car, driving with the window down. As I was thinking about what to do, the man suddenly saw my fellow rider come up from behind, he turned to take a good look, then sped off.”
Other riders from Dwarka we have spoken with repeat the same decision of sticking to riding in groups as it’s not safe. Three women that we spoke with who live in South Delhi say they haven’t faced harassment while out cycling. Harshika is one of them who says her experience has been great. “In fact, I would go in the evenings after my office hours. Once I ventured off pretty far around 8:30 pm. It was quite a deserted place around Jor Bagh and even asked an autowallah for directions, people have been very generous on certain routes. Other than that, whenever I go with groups it’s safer.”
While she hasn’t faced any harassment, she does agree that this is surely “a rare case”. She tells us about plans for making a vlog documenting how safe roads are, and to give cycling tips.
Another rider Pragya who lives in Sarita Vihar says the unsafe aspect arises because of rash driving which has caused accidents with cyclists towards Faridabad and also phone snatching around Ghaziabad.
A study conducted by the South Asia Programme of Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), in May 2020 shows a 50-65% increase in cycling after the lockdown. And in response to people’s rising interest in cycling, the Union housing and urban affairs ministry in July launched the India Cycles4Change Challenge in association with the ITDP India Programme. But with non-existent cycling tracks, and women feeling unsafe, the major challenge is how the governments can make the roads safe. Surely not with the help of cops like the errant sub-inspector.