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Delhi's severe air pollution is frightening everyone, forcing sick to relocate

Old people & young parents are looking at migration as an option to escape Delhi's toxic air.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Nov 18, 2018, 06.48 AM IST
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The capital is living up to the tag of an unlivable metropolis
I can breathe now,” says Deepikah Rahul Bhardwaj, 33, taking in the air of Taleigao in Goa. In May 2017, the designer and multidisciplinary artist left Delhi with her one-year old son after living through another dreadful winter in the capital when the air turned into a grey, pollutant-heavy blanket. She suffers from chronic bronchitis and the attacks became more frequent and severe in winter.

She worried for her child, too, when she saw her friends’ kids getting hospitalised with respiratory ailments. That was not a future she wished for her young boy. “The winter of 2016-17 saw air quality index (AQI) in Delhi shooting past 1,000. For the past five years, we had seen winter going from bad to worse.

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Ajay and Biboo Vajpayee, retirees. They left their daughter’s home in Noida and moved to a rented apartment in Goa in January 2018. They were concerned about their health as they suffer from cardiac and respiratory ailments.

Moving out of Delhi was the only option as the government was taking no significant steps to make the situation better in the long term,” she recalls.

While Deepikah lives in Goa, her husband Rahul Bhardwaj, cofounder of Junglee Games, stays in Delhi for work and flies down on weekends to be with the family.

This is not the life the Bhardwajs would have wished for but, like several others, they are part of a small but disturbing trend of air pollution migrants from Delhi. Most of them are senior citizens or professionals with young children. They are choosing to shift to salubrious places like Goa and Dehradun, or even less polluted cities like Kolkata.

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Mayur Sharma, TV anchor and producer. Moved to Goa from Delhi in 2016 winter. He and his wife wanted a better environment for their children.

“This has been taxing on our family. But we look at it as an investment in our son’s future health as the first five years are crucial for kids,” says Deepikah. “And my chest does not hurt anymore either.”

TV anchor and producer Mayur Sharma is relieved that he doesn’t have to worry about AQI anymore. The 47-year-old from Delhi packed his bags for good last year. He moved to Goa, worried sick about the health of his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. The family tried to escape Delhi winter on a trial basis in 2016 and then shifted permanently a year later. “We have settled in well and it’s a relief that my kids can play and grow up without the alarm of red AQI days,” he says.

He and the Bhardwajs are trying to escape what Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), calls the new tobacco — “the toxic air that billions breathe every day”. Delhi was eighth on WHO’s list of world’s most polluted cities earlier this year.

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Deepikah Rahul Bhardwaj, designer. Moved to Goa from Delhi in May 2017. She suffers from allergic bronchitis and wanted a better environment for her young son.

From Kanpur to Jodhpur, the 14 worst cities are in India, which makes fleeing from bad air an even more difficult proposition.

Relocation has not been easy for many.

After Greater Kailash in south Delhi, Goa has been a different ball game for Deepikah as she had to forgo not just the many amenities of city life, including child care services, but also her close circle of friends and family.

Meanwhile, textile designer Swati Jain has closed down her garments factory in Noida and is preparing to move to Kolkata — it is a familiar city as she graduated from there.

She is moving for the sake of her parents.

“My mother’s health has taken a turn for the worse due to bad air. She is now on permanent oxygen support,” says Jain, 43. “My father’s health, too, has been affected and he has been in and out of hospitals.”

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Swati Jain, textile designer. She has wound up her garments factory in Noida and plans to move to Kolkata in 2019 summer. The respiratory problems of her parents are a serious concern.

Their home in Delhi has three oxygen cylinders, three air purifiers and a humidifier to combat dryness.

Jain wants to shift to Kolkata by the summer of 2019 but “renting a suitable house is proving to be a challenge and we are getting delayed,” she says.

As the AQI levels in Noida slide between “poor”, “very poor” and “severe” , communications consultant Sukriti Vajpayee recalls how the air drove her parents Ajay and Biboo out of her home in January. They decided it was time to leave NCR when Ajay, 65, who has heart ailments, could no longer go on his mandatory walks. He wore masks, but the pollution got to him. The couple, retired from government jobs in Lucknow, decided to move to Goa as they have friends there and they wanted to experience a different lifestyle from Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. “It would have been convenient for my parents to live with me,” says Sukriti, who shuttles between Noida and Goa.

For patients with respiratory ailments, doctors often end up recommending one thing these days: get out of Delhi. Dr Arvind Kumar, chairman, Centre for Chest Surgery, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, may have to prescribe the same for his 24-year-old son Abhishek.

“My team and I treat several patients every winter. My son, an engineer, who has been working for the Lung Care Foundation, has frequent asthma attacks during this season and I’m seriously considering the option of relocation for him.”

Dr Vivek Nangia, head of Fortis Lung Centre, Fortis Hospital, Vasant Kunj, also advises many of his patients to move out of Delhi at least temporarily when the AQI goes over 200. “Many of my elderly patients leave Delhi in the colder months and live with their children or family members in other cities,” he says. Older people, children, pregnant women and cancer and diabetes patients are vulnerable to heart, lung and other complications due to air pollution, he says.

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“Everyone can’t move out of NCR. The way forward is awareness about air quality and fight by citizens for clean air” Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment.

“Some of my patients are looking beyond long vacations in October and November and thinking of permanently moving out of Delhi NCR. A few are seeking transfers from their employers.”

Environmental experts warn that migration may not be the best option as many other cities are fast catching up with Delhi NCR on bad AQI. "Awareness about air quality is increasing. Citizens should now fight for clean air and put pressure on government for better systems to tackle pollution. That's the way forward, not running away" says Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment.

For now, logistics companies are seeing more and more people opting for cities such as Pune and Hyderabad over Delhi and Gurgaon.

"We recently helped a family move to Hyderabad from Delhi after their child was diagnosed with severe asthma. While the husband got a transfer, the wife had to leave her job," says Shiivani Aggarwal, CEO of Formula Group, which specialises in relocation services. Increasingly, senior executives and expats on India assignment are refusing Delhi jobs because of the appalling air quality.

The capital is living up to the tag of an unlivable metropolis.

Know the AQI
Delhi 259
Noida 295
Gurgaon 275
Pune 180
Mumbai 110
Bengaluru 95
Dehradun 63
Goa 57*
Hyderabad 41

As on 1 pm, November 17, 2018 Source: AQI India, * Weatherbug

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