Pollution may force Delhi residents to pack up and go

Heavy smog in Delhi earlier this month. Pollution levels in the city of 25 million people have doubled over the past decade.
Heavy smog in Delhi earlier this month. Pollution levels in the city of 25 million people have doubled over the past decade.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Air quality has fallen to levels not seen in two decades amid calls for authorities to take urgent action

A few days before Deepavali, businessman Nikhil Pahwa drove out of Delhi to the hill town of Nainital to avoid the smog that gets into many a city dweller's eyes every year after firecrackers are let off to mark the festival celebrating the victory of light over darkness.

He returned two days after the festival but smog was still in the air, and the air quality on certain days had deteriorated to levels not seen in nearly two decades, according to the India's meteorological department. The Indian capital city remained under a dark blanket of smog for nearly 10 days after Deepavali at the end of last month.

It made the 35-year-old wonder if it was time to move.

Mr Pahwa, owner of MediaNama, a mobile and digital news portal headquartered in Delhi, said: "My business is here. It's not sustainable to keep leaving Delhi when pollution levels go up. I am thinking of a place two to three hours away from Delhi, where the air is cleaner."

He is not the only one to think that. "I have one friend who is seriously thinking of moving out of Delhi and another who wants to move out of India, to Singapore or Hong Kong."'

Pollution levels in Delhi, a city of 25 million people, have doubled over the last decade due to its growing number of cars, construction of residential homes to cater to a migrating middle class population, and polluting industries in nearby areas.

The situation is exacerbated annually by farmers in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana who burn their crop stubble to prepare the ground for winter crops.

While the authorities promise to take action every time air quality dives in the wake of Deepavali, environmentalists said the authorities need to work together to reduce vehicular traffic, improve public transport, shut down coal-based power plants and switch to the use of gas immediately. They also noted that recent government policies such as banning 10-year-old diesel vehicles have had limited impact.

Some people have already left Delhi for a change of air.

In February this year, editorial designer Devika Dwarkadas, 29, and her fiancee Neelakash Kshetrimayum, 35, a type designer, moved from Delhi to the state of Goa in the south-west which is 21/2 hours away by air.

Ms Dwarkadas, who quit her job, said: "We didn't want to stay here due to the increase in pollution. Last year, we went to San Francisco for three months and when we returned and landed at the Delhi airport, our eyes started burning."

The couple now work from home.

Ms Dwarkadas felt vindicated after a trip to Delhi last week. "I couldn't breathe. It was like standing next to a furnace and suffocating. I used to be in a 9-to-5 job, spending three hours in traffic in Delhi every day. Now my entire lifestyle has changed," she said.

At least one industry body, the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, has warned that the pollution in Delhi could lead to a loss of confidence among its citizens and also affect fresh investments.

"If urgent steps on an emergency scale are not taken, the economic impact arising out of the health issues could be catastrophic for the National Capital Region, one of the important pillars of the national economy," it said in a statement.

In 2013, a World Health Organisation study titled the Global Burden of Disease said outdoor air pollution was the fifth largest killer in India and accounted for around 620,000 premature deaths in India in 2010.

India's Supreme Court has now asked the federal and state governments to come up with an emergency plan like that in China to deal with pollution spikes.

Mrs Anjali Virk, a 40-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Gurgaon, a Delhi satellite city, feels helpless about the pollution. "Maybe I am a bit blase about it. But there is very little you can do. It is everywhere," said Mrs Virk, who has stopped her morning walks and will not let her two sons play outside when pollution is very bad. "But you can't lock yourself at home," she added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'Pollution may force Delhi residents to pack up and go'. Print Edition | Subscribe