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Posted at: Nov 11, 2017, 2:15 AM; last updated: Nov 11, 2017, 2:15 AM (IST)

Can we have some fresh air, please!

People have migrated for jobs, money, education… Now they are packing their bags to inhale cleaner air. Enter the pollution migrants

Purnima Sharma

The thick blanket of smog that had engulfed Delhi last year is back — spreading its life-threatening tentacles over the Capital yet again. The Indian Medical Association declared “public health emergency” as the air quality plunged to toxic levels again last week. Even the half-marathon scheduled for November 19 could be cancelled to avoid disastrous health consequences. Slow and calm wind conditions and dipping temperatures have been blamed for the rise of airborne pollutant PM2.5 that can include carcinogenic chemicals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. Even as the government is trying to get its act together to combat the situation, for many Delhiites, this is not enough — they want to just shift base and head towards cleaner environs. 

Of course, it’s not Delhi alone that presents a grim picture, vis-a-vis pollution. The WHO database throws up a shocking number —14 out of 30 of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. These include Gwalior, Allahabad, Patna, Raipur and Delhi. Unfortunately, India could well be among the most polluted countries of the world.

Shifting base

“It was a clarion call that should have been heeded to years ago. Environmental experts had seen it coming, and yet the powers that be didn’t pay heed,” rues Vandana Sharma, who made her exit from the Capital three years back. “I avoid all visits to Delhi and don’t spend even an extra hour there than necessary,” says the 54-year-old, who is often envied by her friends for parachuting into the idyllic paradise of Goa. “And even in this little time spent there, I end up with puffy eyes and sore throat,” says Vandana, who is gearing up for her debut exhibition and spends time “learning salsa and savouring the beauty of the Western Ghats as against Delhiites who’ve been confined indoors”. No wonder then, a former beauty queen and her entrepreneur husband who, seeing their little son develop asthma decided on London for the long haul. As a friend of the couple states, “If the government doesn’t act swiftly, many, who can, will leave.”

The sentiment is shared by Kapil Dewan, who has zeroed in on a hilly abode in Uttaranchal. “Being a hardcore Delhiite, it’s sad that I will say my final goodbye to the city soon,” says the 53-year-old equity analyst. According to him, pollution and vehicular congestion are the major culprits. “Merely some sporadic measures like bans on cracker sale or odd-even car drives are not enough,” says Dewan. Things have come to a head with the smog. “The clear blue skies of my childhood days are a thing of the past. I just can’t digest the fact that we are actually allowing ourselves to breathe in the fine pollution particles that will cause major damage to our health.”  With his children settled abroad, the umbilical cord with the city is easy to sever for Dewan, who mentions the term ‘Smog migration’ that he came across in one of the Beijing papers. 

“Here, pollution migration will be soon be a long-term trend if the situation is not controlled.” And the hills will be no hindrance to Dewan’s work. “A good internet connection is all I need to keep me going. And my wife will continue what she enjoys doing here — teaching children,” he adds.

With technology opening up many more avenues, “internet is a godsend for the pollution migrants like us”, says Seema Kundra, who spends most of her time in her new home in the Satoli village of Kumaon. “It has worked out well for me as it keeps me away from the gas chamber that Delhi has become. Plus, there’s more than enough work through emails and Skype that keeps me busy,” says the communication and travel consultant, who just flies down to the Capital “only when there are important meetings to attend”.

Work-life balance 

Likewise, it was the urge to find a good work-life balance that forced Prachi Tara who had lived in Delhi for more than a decade to hotfoot it back to Bhubaneswar. “When I lost my husband Sidhartha to cancer, I could have stayed on — given my lucrative job there — but I had to think of my kids and ensure they grow up in an atmosphere that does not pose any health hazards,” states the Oriya TV anchor.

It’s not just Delhi-denizens who are bidding goodbye to their pollution-ridden cities. Having lived in Bengaluru all his early years till he went to Chandigarh to study graphic design and later to Oman to work, Navdeep Sarin realised how badly affected his health was. “I started getting watery eyes, wheezing cough, and even eruptions on my skin — stuff that would disappear when I was out of Bengaluru,” says the design executive, who decided to make Chandigarh his home in the late 1990s. He is now more than happy “being closer to the mountains and nature” and his health problems have subsequently abated. 

“Staying close to nature works wonders for your health,” asserts the Aligarh-based Dr Mohd Shoaib Zaheer. Placed between two of the most polluted cities of India — Delhi and Agra — he wonders how long will it be before Aligarh too joins the club. “This is something many of my colleagues worry about,” says the professor of medicine, who has just finished work on his cottage in Sargakhet near Mukteshwar, where he takes off at any given opportunity. “I owe it to my family to give them a better quality of life — close to nature,” says the 53-year-old father of two young children. 

Dealing with the problem 

Not everyone is lucky enough to shift base, says radiologist and passionate crusader for a clean environment Dr Harsh Mahajan. “I worry for people who say they’ve become immune to pollution, to the fine dust-particles that seep inside the body and cause irreparable damage, because the truth is that they’re not.” Talking about the need to ring the alarm bells, he says, “Besides vehicular emission and stubble-burning, even construction activity that causes more than 40 per cent of pollution needs to stop as the dust particles these create are among the culprits. The authorities must cement or plant grass to take care of the roadside dust too.”

And for exercise enthusiasts, early morning walks and jogs are a complete no-no, he says. “These must be rescheduled for later in the day “because the cold keeps the air heavy, and dust particles remain trapped and suspended over the ground till much longer causing health problems”. And last but not the least, he suggests that “we should all make the government accountable because everyone’s health is at stake.”


Least polluted cities of India

  • Kollam, Kerala
  • Hassan, Karnataka
  • Puducherry, Tamil Nadu
  • Agartala, Tripura
  • Gandhinagar, Gujarat
  • Malappuram, Kerala
  • Shillong, Meghalaya

The WHO database throws

up shocking statistics on pollution. With 14 Indian cities among world’s 30 most polluted, the country could well be among the nations with the worst air quality 

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