Air pollution: Why a clutch of expats in Delhi are moving back home
CO2 level in Delhi is so high that a Californian breeze would seem like a breath of fresh air (cities in California are amongst the US’ most polluted).
Leenaars would have been a great ambassador for the Capital and its quality of life, and an effective counter to The New York Times correspondent Gardiner Harris squarely blaming Delhi’s “air, water, food and flies” for his decision to leave the city and hotfoot it back to Washington. Except for one problem: Leenaars recently moved to Goa with his wife and three children aged between seven and nine. “I will keep coming back to Delhi to run the operations of my company but I want my children to be able to grow up amidst nature,” he offers.
Delhi, alas, isn’t exactly the place for growing up amidst nature, concluded Harris after a completing a three-year stint in Delhi. When a week ago he wrote an article about a severe paediatric respiratory attack his eight-year-old son faced, weaving in not just Delhi’s alarming air, water and food pollution situation but other concerns such as bad traffic and apathy among healthcare providers, the Capital didn’t come out smelling of roses — raw sewage and fresh excretions are more like it, if you believe Harris.
Many have chosen not to believe, dismissing Harris’ piece as a typical expat tirade against a third-world country where hardship posting allowances are often an effective and lucrative blindfold against public defecation and urination, amongst other scatological horrors. Weren’t the Harrises aware of all this, and the bad air, when they parachuted into the Capital; and it isn’t as if the air in the United States is immaculate, is another view, what with recent studies indicating that 44% of America’s population lives in counties where the air is unhealthy to breathe due to ozone or particle pollution.
The counter to that: carbon dioxide emissions in Delhi are so high that a Californian breeze would seem like a breath of fresh air (cities in California are amongst the US’ most polluted). In May 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) in a report on ambient air pollution found Delhi to have the highest concentration of PM2.5 — particulate matters less than 2.5 microns — which is considered most serious and can cause respiratory diseases and other health problems. Some 1,600 cities in 91 countries were studied. The situation is so bad in Delhi that its air has PM2.5 concentrations of 153 micrograms and PM10 concentrations of 286 micrograms. The permissible level for PM2.5 is 60 micrograms per cubic metre and PM10 is 50.
When expats complain, it’s common to dismiss them as whiners, justifiably on many occasions. A section of readers will also wonder why we’re so obsessed with the expat way of life (colonial hangover, white-skin obsession et al); what about the Indian lungs that are soaking in the soot? Well, the answer to that is most of the expats have come to India because of the economic and business opportunities here, not quite for the quality of life (and air); for the latter they can always go back home (or some other place than Delhi). Which, as you will find out over the next few pages, is what a few have decided to do, and more than a few are seriously contemplating.
(Additional reporting by Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury)
Pollution and Congestion are Major Concerns: Philly Malicka, 26 British, writer & publishing consultant
Philly Malicka moved to Delhi three years ago when she was just 23, working as publishing consultant and independent writer. She was excited about living and working in Delhi, and travelling across India. Recently, however, Malicka took the decision to move back to London in the next couple of months and not complete a five-year stint as she had originally planned.Her biggest problems are having to travel around the city and suburbs, breathing the polluted air and handling the congestion on the streets. “Although I love India, my work takes me all across Delhi and the National Capital Region — from the remote sectors of Noida to the lanes and bylanes of north Delhi. The pollution and vehicular congestion have become major concerns for me,” she says.
As a single young woman, safety and security too are concerns. “I have often felt intimidated by aggressive men in public spaces,” says Malicka who has specifically chosen to rent apartments in South Delhi that are conspicuous by their greenery and open spaces.
In her tony apartment in a posh south Delhi colony, Malicka has created an island for herself with potted plants and minimalist furniture. She depends on trusted cab drivers, vegetable vendors and has even found a reliable doctor in the neighbourhood. However, the comfort factor is obviously not enough for her to consider it her home for the long haul.
Delhi is Just not Made for Pedestrians: Alice Helme, 27 British, director, CAARA, a catering and food consultancy company
Moving from Delhi to Bali, Indonesia, is not a decision that Alex Le Beuan is quite chuffed about. “Delhi had been my second home for 10 years. But over the years a lot has changed for the worse in this city,” he says. And that includes pollution, traffic and the ambience.
It was when their daughter was born that Le Beuan and his wife, who is Indian, took the decision to leave Delhi. “Every time I came back to Delhi after a trip, my eyes would be red and watering. Besides, the bonds between people too is very limited in Delhi when compared with the warmth and hospitality of people in many other places in India,” he says.
Le Beuan now looks forward to visiting Delhi at least once every 6-7 weeks, not just on work but also to catch up with friends. “Besides, I also have my tailor,” he quips. And he looks forward to trips to his favourite travel destinations — the Andamans, Ladakh, Aravalli Hills and Kumaon.
“I think Delhi gave me a lot for many years, but, if the alarming pollution statistics are to be believed, in the last few years, it took away more than it gave,” he says philosophically.
This is a Challenging City: Rod Oliver, 47 British, works in an MNC
The couple is more worried because they have two young sons aged four-and-a-half and one-and-a-half. “Our younger son catches a cold quite easily but we don’t relate that to the pollution so far,” adds Oliver. But neither he nor his wife, who works for an NGO, are taking any chances. They use face-masks when they go out especially during winter months and when using public transport such as the Metro.
“While we’re both busy with our jobs in Delhi now, we do believe that we will have to make a decision to move out eventually for the sake of our sons, when they grow a bit older, since this is a challenging city,” says Oliver. The family would like to spend more time doing outdoor activities but that’s tough not just because of pollution but also bad and unregulated traffic. “While our interest in exploring the city has to often be put on hold, the good thing here is the domestic help that we have to look after our kids,” he adds.
Leaving Delhi is not an option for Gilles Verniers. “I’m here for purposes that are not only personal and therefore, the living conditions in Delhi, pollution or otherwise, are not a factor in the decision of staying or leaving,” he says emphatically. For him, this city and its people deserve to be cared for and thus leaving is no solution. But he too is concerned about the capital’s future.
“Delhi’s population has doubled since 1990 and that growth rate is not going down in the next 15 years. The urban development model of the periphery is marked by the absence of a model,” he says. Verniers is worried about the lack of willingness of public authorities to even acknowledge the gravity of the situation. It is important for the government to think out of the box and come out with policies such as introducing CNG for public transport.
Pollution is a Big Irritant in Delhi: Simon de Trey-White, 55 British, freelance photojournalist
Simon de Trey-White has often toyed with the idea of leaving Delhi and moving to a place in India where there’s less air and noise pollution. Goa seems perfect thanks to the accounts of friends who moved there, according to him. Yet, to relocate is not easy because as a freelance photojournalist he has built up a huge pool of contacts in the Capital over the years. Besides, his wife [Ashim] runs a children’s home in Delhi. Trey-White, nevertheless, enjoys India. “Almost anywhere else in the country has better air and a more relaxed vibe and the countryside can be beautiful,” he says.
The same can’t be said of Delhi. On occasions when he has forgotten to carry his anti-pollution facemask during assignments in Delhi, he has suffered from sore throat and headaches. “Air pollution is one of the biggest irritants in Delhi which is entirely beyond our control and can have serious impact on people’s health. And though my wife has lived here almost all her life she too uses a facemask often,” says Trey-White.
As a photojournalist, the opportunities India offers are unmatched, says Trey-White. Which is why he has stayed put. “I also have great affection for the country and its people,” adds Trey-White.
I Miss the Long Walks and Fresh Air: Christine Samandari-Hakim, 60 French, entrepreneur
Christine Samandari-Hakim finds her involvement in the food startup, set up by her husband Kazem Samandari and son Laurent Samandari, very rewarding. A sociologist with a PhD in social psychology, she has other interests in Delhi. “I served for 19 years as the director of the European office of public information of the Baha’i International Community in Paris before moving to India.In Delhi too, I’m involved with the Baha’i community activities,” she says. And having made Delhi their home, the Samandaris now have a large circle of friends and pursue many cultural interests. For these reasons, Paris doesn’t beckon. Not yet. “But pollution is certainly a major problem which needs serious attention. My husband who used to jog outdoors can no longer do that and has to exercise in the gym due to respiratory problems,” says Samandari-Hakim. Her daughter’s family recently moved out of India after her 11-year-old grandson Olivier began to suffer from respiratory problems in Delhi.
“With a strong political will and with action, the pollution problem can be tackled as we have seen in cities such as London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and many others in the western hemisphere in the ’60s and ’70s,” she says. Until then, she will miss the long walks and fresh air in Delhi. She, however, treasures the Mughal heritage of Delhi and the warmth of its people.
We are Trying to Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: Darioush Afzali, 47 German, marketing director, SABMiller India
Darioush Afzali enjoys his early morning walk with his wife in his neighbourhood. He is not complaining about the air pollution, perhaps because he is far, far away from Delhi. But having lived in many cities around the world, the issue of pollution, not just in India, concerns him and his family.
“Luckily, we haven’t faced any problems in Bengaluru so far due to the pollution. We are trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle and we stay away as much as possible from polluted areas,” he says. But living in Bengaluru has its challenges too.
“The biggest challenge in everyday life for me is the ever increasing traffic and all the problems that come with it, probably caused by an inadequate infrastructure and the lack of planning,” says Afzali. But he loves the diversity of India and its rich heritage. “We love to travel and truly enjoy the amazing food.”