Pollution migrants: Meet the people who left Delhi for good because of its noxious air

Pollution migrants: Meet the people who left Delhi for good because of its noxious air
Photo Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP
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When Gardiner Harris, the South Asia correspondent for the New York Times, wrote an editorial in May about Delhi’s poisonous air, it raised a stink about the pollution levels in the city. Harris said the capital’s noxious air aggravated his eight-year-old son’s asthma, which became worse with every passing day. Then one day, he wrote, he decided to pack his bags and leave for Washington.

While the editorial sparked a conversation about Delhi’s debilitating pollution, not much was done to rein it in. That is, until its severity hit home. As winter set in, smog engulfed the city, covering it in a grim greyness. While the Delhi government has announced that half of the city’s cars will go off the streets on alternate days from January 1, doctors have advised those with pulmonary and heart diseases to leave the city.

It’s a call that several pollution migrants are already heeding, including Nikhil Pahwa.

While in Delhi, the 34-year-old founder of medianama.com tried everything to breathe cleaner air, at least indoors. He bought a mask and a few plants to cleanse the air. He invested in two air-purifiers, one each for the bedroom and office. But after nearly a month, he saw no substantial improvement in his health or the quality of air he was breathing. Agitated, he set out to change things.

Over two days, Pahwa led an initiative to collect ideas to tackle pollution in Delhi and people online contributed enthusiastically. The result was a five-page bank of short- and long-term measures that the government could put into effect. That, however, never happened.

Pahwa’s tweets and emails to his elected representatives didn’t receive any response. Government inaction proved to be the last straw and, with his health worsening, Pahwa decided to shift base.

“I decided I couldn’t live in Delhi any longer – it was taking too heavy a toll on my health,” said Pahwa on phone from a hotel in Bangalore, where he is house-hunting. “I have my family in Delhi and I will try to spend a few months with them every year but I can’t live in Delhi for long periods. There’s no air, just smoke… Bangalore is certainly not one of the cleanest cities but better is an understatement if you compare it with Delhi. I can feel myself breathing easy and my mood has become better too.”

Public health emergency

Delhi’s pollution levels are on average 16 times higher than the levels considered safe by the World Health Organization. In the past month, its Air Quality Index, which shouldn’t go above 150, has rarely come down below 300. At times, it has shot up to as much as 999 in some parts of the city.

There were many warning signs in the past, like when the World Health Organization described Delhi as the world’s most polluted city. Or when the courts likened the capital to “living in a gas chamber” and rapped the government for not acting on time. Still, things only moved last week.

Shibayan Raha, a 34-year-old climate change activist who moved out of Delhi three years ago due to his deteriorating health, has no plans of coming back.

“I have been living in the hills ever since I decided that Delhi pollution has become too much and I couldn’t be happier,” Raha said from his abode in the hills of Uttarakhand. “I have a severe asthma problem and living in Delhi is not just dangerous, it is deadly.”

Raha says that his work for an organisation based in Delhi often brings him to the capital for a day or two, but he is reluctant to expose his lungs to the city’s air for a prolonged period. “I survive because of an air-pollution mask and my inhalers in the city,” he said. “Otherwise, one never knows.”

Not looking back

Sakshi Dubey, a 27-year-old professional in Maharashtra, has a similar story to tell. Dubey has chronic bronchitis and even though her in-laws stay on the periphery of Delhi, she has no intention of stepping foot in the city given its high pollution levels.

“We last thought about it one and a half years ago when my husband and I started looking for opportunities in Delhi,” she said. “We thought it would be nice to be near family and there were a few offers too but we decided against it considering the pollution that we would have to deal with. The doctors have strongly advised against living in Delhi due to my condition.”

Dubey is not the only one to let go of opportunities in Delhi to keep her health intact. Headhunters, speaking off the record, assert that many professionals express concerns about working in dusty Gurgaon or Delhi’s bustling business centres because of the pollution. “Employees are looking for super-high remuneration to compensate them against their health hazards,” said a consultant running his own headhunting firm. “The companies, in some cases, are even paying those in Delhi more than their usual structures allow but they have no real choice but to attract and retain talent.”

Last week, a news report suggested that Norway may label Delhi as a “hardship” posting due to the levels of pollution and those working in its embassy here may get a special allowance. The American Consulate in the capital, meanwhile, continuously monitors pollution levels and advises American citizens about health hazards. An email from the consulate recently prompted the American Embassy School in Delhi to cancel all outdoor activities until the pollution levels come down.

Strikingly, the Delhi government is yet to issue a health advisory about the pollution levels. It has deserted the citizens to their own devices, making many seek succour elsewhere, in other cities.