I didn’t know Dr KK Aggarwal, Sunder Lal Bahuguna and Dinesh Mohan too well in the conventional sense of the word. I didn’t spend hours at their offices or in their homes. I spoke with each of them a few times, read their work, heard their lectures and, in one case, sought their help. Funny thing, how people can be so influential with such sporadic interaction.
In recent weeks, Covid-19 has taken them from us. I wish I was writing an obituary of Covid-19 instead.
Dr KK Aggarwal was larger than life, a cardiologist, the face and voice of the Indian Medical Association for a long time. He made it a point to be simultaneously accessible and argumentative, an attribute that, in my experience, had several positive outcomes.
During a chance encounter at a government meeting, where we were discussing errant hospitals that did not handle their bio-medical waste, he launched several attacks on me. Although it was slightly annoying to be interrupted so often by one so passionately engaged only in disagreement, I came out with a life-long idea : most bio-medical waste is generated in homes, because most people who are ill in India stay at home.
Aggarwal realised he’d got me on his side with this argument. I agreed instantly. He then declared triumphantly, to seal his victory, “Like TB.”
I continue to hold hospitals responsible, but that encounter taught me to re-think hazards in fundamental ways. But the good doctor was more than someone who represented healthcare interest. He believed health was everybody’s business. When a collective, My Right to Breathe, asked him for support to draw attention to the polluted skies of the times, he unhesitatingly joined the war cry. India is lucky to have so many doctors who fight shoulder to shoulder with activists for public goods. KK Aggarwal was one of the most spirited.
Much before I first met Aggarwal in my 20s, I was intensely aware of Sunder Lal Bahuguna. Growing up in Delhi, we were all strangely aware of this extraordinary leader, thinker, a man of the mountains who stood up to vile destruction. He was the leader of the Chipko Movement in the Chamoli district. It was as if he worked magic in the mountains.
At 17, I finally hauled my unfit, urban body across thin mountain pathways, to a village called Nahikala, along with several other people. There, a group of feisty villagers were involved a court case to stop limestone mining in the region. Sleeping on the floor in the village school, we saw first-hand what a fight for resources looked like from the point of view of people who consumed the least. I had never stepped out of the comfort of Luytens and South Delhi, except to sail into other comfort zones. Eating two simple meals of khichri a day and breathlessly walking uphill was surprisingly profound.
When I finally met Bahuguna in Delhi, I raced to speak to him. He was saintly, smiling and for no reason at all, I was at a loss of words. When I pushed out a few sentences, he spoke eloquently about the need to put up a fight against wrongdoing. We spoke a few times, snatching time whenever I went to events where he was usually the star. Those were formative conversations. They were my first steps to start making sense of two ideas : the meaning of local control over resources and environmental justice. If an environmental star had been too busy for a young, curious woman, my world might have looked quite different.
During an earlier stage of my work, I organised wastepickers in New Delhi, the sole staffer at the Chintan environmental action group I had founded. Many of them would reporting accidents. The data I painstakingly analysed showed they were hit by cars as they cycled on the capital’s treacherous roads. What to do, was the question? I went looking for the best person on road safety-all roads led to Dinesh Mohan, founder of IIT Delhi’s Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme.
Much to my surprise, he showed up on a Sunday to meet the wastepickers. He appeared very professorial in his white kurta, a look that endured him to Chintan’s loose collective. Unhesitatingly, he held a discussion with about 200 people and came up with a prescription that created a ripple amongst Delhi’s cyclists.
He suggested the wastepickers become visible to other vehicles by specifically painting their cycles a bright yellow. He added that they attach old CDs – a free resource – where they could. This was before CDs were widely used as reflectors. It worked, even better than we imagined. Many other cyclists saw it as a code of some kind. Like a flash, several yellow cycles were seen on Delhi’s roads in a few weeks.
I phoned him up as reports began flowing in of this yellow revolution. He guffawed and hoped more lives would be saved. Dinesh Mohan’s ideas around road equity pushed me to start thinking of transportation as livelihood. If you looked at it like that, the right to work was linked with the right to use the road in whatever way one needed to, safely. Today, Chintan’s work on air pollution often gestures to the road as the site for environmental justice.
Someone on Facebook said, when hearing about the demise of Aggarwal, that he “felt like a neighbour”. I’d extend that to all three of these magnificent gentlemen. They felt like neighbours – around if you needed to grab an idea or their help. People don’t have to be our buddies or be on messaging terms with us to shine a light in our lives. They only have to be generous with their ideas and time. The rest unfolds.
Rest in peace, my influencers. You lived such glorious lives.
Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and founder of the NGO Chintan.