The Lament Of An Environmental Migrant

I arrived in Gurgaon on the 16th of March 2014 with two suitcases. In the nearly six years since, I’ve prospered in a new career, fallen in love with a lifelong Delhiite, gotten married, and become a father. I’ve developed friendships and connections that have enriched me intellectually and professionally. In five short years, my life has become inextricably entwined with Gurgaon. Despite living in three other cities during the past sixteen years, Gurgaon is where I have finally been able to sink roots and hang out a Home Sweet Home plate. It didn’t last long though – in January 2020, I tore up my nascent roots in Gurgaon and relocated to Hyderabad with my family.

In the months following my daughter Vivien’s birth in the summer of 2018, every attempt I made to stay in the moment with her was tainted by anxiety. I was continually aware that come September, the season’s pernicious mists would be upon us, wreaking unknown damage inside her tiny body. We got through her first winter with restrictions on going outdoors and the use of an air purifier – not ideal, and by no means adequate, but we were relieved that all her biological markers seemed on track and her doctor was pleased with her growth milestones.

Two days shy of her first birthday, Vivien got off her bed and crawled towards our living room as she always did after her morning nap. When half the way there, she got to her feet unsteadily and took her first steps without support – seventeen bold strides into the arms of her grandmother. She hasn’t stopped running since. She’s growing to be the outdoorsy type, spending several hours on our balcony and an hour and a half in the park each day. Like any other child her age, she loves the playground – the swings, slides, and rides that she’s barely old enough for, and it feels criminal to deprive her of these things. But there was her wheeze – the sharp hiss of her breath when she ran across the playground – it was hard to tell if it was merely panting, or something far more insidious.

The autumn-winter air quality problem in Northern India is a complex issue with multiple contributing factors: there’s the most discussed cause – stubble burning as farmers prepare their fields for the Rabi crop; altered wind patterns thanks to climate change; and comfort fires that homeless people or those who work outdoors light to stay warm. Within the National Capital Region, these factors are compounded by garbage burning – of which the Jindal Group’s Okhla-based garbage burning power plant is perhaps the largest perpetrator; emissions from the thousands of unauthorised industrial units that dot the region; and construction regulations deficient in provisions restricting the release of particulate matter. Barring climate change, all of these factors can be immediately countered with an integrated effort that has not been made thus far.

For four years, I have been a part of the circus around air quality in the Delhi area. The protests begin as a murmur in August, reach a crescendo in November, and diminish to a whimper by spring. It is my personal opinion that the Bharatiya Janta Party, which rose to power with a landslide electoral victory in 2014 and repeated a powerful performance in the 2019 elections, is holding back on decisive steps to curb pollution in its efforts to discredit and dislodge the Aam Aadmi Party which controls Delhi’s local government. The AAP has made some sincere efforts, but with the root cause spanning multiple states, their ability to do something truly transformational is limited. In Punjab, where a lot of stubble burning occurs, the Congress government wants to avoid antagonizing farmers in a desperate effort to hold on to one of the few states where it still holds power. In Haryana, the BJP Government is sitting tight to avoid upsetting the farmers that form its vote bank. The hapless citizens of northern India – farmers and urbanites alike – are mere cannon fodder in this pitched political battle.

While the rural population suffers in silent helplessness, the urban knowledgeable have been desensitized to the issue. Some were actually overjoyed when the AQI stayed within the 400s over the Diwali Holiday – forgetting that anything over 50 is bad, and 400 is “Hazardous”. Also, barring those with existing respiratory problems, people who don’t have extraordinary demands from their bodies do not understand how this pollution is affecting them. As a recreational runner and former martial artist, I am acutely aware that my body is not functioning optimally. While running in Gurgaon during winter months, I’d be lucky to go 4 kilometres at an even pace – in comparison, in February 2019, I ran 10 kilometres across the Ashwe and Morji beaches in Goa, barely breaking a sweat. For three years, I’ve been suffering a mild chest congestion that waxes and wanes with shifts in air quality. Extreme exertion such as sprint training causes me to cough up globs of green phlegm. For four years, I’ve been indifferent to this, but I cannot afford to any longer.

Like most crises in India, the pollution problem is characterized by staggering intersectionality. Most of the people who are concerned about it are those who can afford the tools to protect themselves to some measure, or like us, to move away. Those most vulnerable can only afford to look up at the drab sky and dive back into the struggle of making it to the next day. Unfortunately though, those who are vocal about the pollution crisis are the minority. As we have seen in the past six years of the current government, rhetoric, symbols, and gestures are prioritized over actual performance, and any minority, however vocal with its grievance, is ignored. Except for arming ministry offices with air purifiers, the central government has done nothing to acknowledge this terrible crisis, and there is no sign of a credible movement to protest the slow poisoning of the region’s residents.

The economic impact of this is catching up. During September 2016, I accompanied a friend seeking to buy a home in Defence Colony – one of the nicer Central Delhi neighbourhoods. The going rate at that time was INR 100 million (about USD 1.4 million) for a three-bedroom unit in a modern building. Today, a similar property can be had for about INR 60 million (USD 0.85 million). A local estate agent recently told me that the previously high prices were driven by rental potential as the neighbourhood was popular with foreign workers – particularly those working at embassies and UN agencies. Apparently, since Delhi’s pollution situation has become common knowledge, most embassies and international agencies have cut local staff and some even prohibit officers with young children from taking up a Delhi posting. This shift is having a devastating effect on the local economy. Foreign workers typically employed highly experienced domestic staff – chauffeurs, housekeepers, cooks, and nannies – and paid high wages commensurate with skills, experience, and personality. These professionals are now finding it harder to find work, often taking up roles with far lesser pay and poorer working conditions just to meet their expenses. Now that the rental demand from foreign workers has been taken off the table, rents have plunged, and many long-time property owners have sold their homes and moved – often to places where their children live. The aforementioned estate agent claimed that about two dozen of his long-time clients have sold and moved to Goa, Canada, Australia, the USA, and the UK. I may have been prescient when I ran the numbers in a 2018 article and made a business case for wealthy Delhi residents to migrate.

This exodus is sure to gather momentum – I know of many local families with young children who have plans to relocate. While the pollution is a key reason, other motivations are the higher cost of living; and an absurdly competitive educational system, with admission to some elementary schools requiring bribes of over INR 1 million (USD 14,000). Our former housekeeper just told us that several of the flats in the gated community we lived in are empty. The former occupants – all DINKs or families with younger children have left for other cities.

With Hyderabad and Bangalore already known for their tech-friendly business environment, many companies will look to these cities to expand their footprint. Friends and acquaintances who are recruiting for both larger companies and startups have spoken about high-skill, high pay workers – earning INR 5,000,000 (USD 70,000) and above – being reluctant to move to Delhi. In atleast two cases, this resulted in these positions being created in another city – one in Bangalore, and one in Bombay – to accommodate the right candidate. In the longer term, Gurgaon may lose out to the benefits of any growth if the current government’s economic ambitions do eventually materialize. For instance, Deloitte employs over 40,000 people in Hyderabad and plans to double its headcount in the city by 2022; Google’s new campus in Hyderabad can accommodate 13,000 workers; Amazon’s Hyderabad office has a capacity of 15,000. All these jobs are middle and high income jobs, and will infuse liquidity into the local economy and drive tax revenue. With the current pollution situation and highly publicised law and order problems, will Gurgaon ever see these numbers? Will Noida? The governments too are certainly feeling the pinch. Gurgaon, for instance, recently raised levies for property transfers in the upmarket wards of the city.

It’s been an agonizing decision for us to take. Varsha, my wife, is anxious about leaving her parents and it breaks her heart to leave the city of her birth. Vivien is much adored by her maternal grandparents, who frequently drove a 150 km round trip just to have lunch with her. Varsha has a large extended family in the Delhi area, whose company we enjoy at festivals and family events. I’ve enjoyed their warmth and affection from the day I was introduced to them as Varsha’s fiancé. It deeply saddens both of us to take Vivien away from her loving uncles, aunts, and cousins – a diverse bunch of artists, activists, entrepreneurs, professionals, and civil servants – role models whose presence would surely influence her future happiness and success.

Through all this anger and sadness, we are aware of and grateful for our privilege. This wouldn’t be possible without the financial resources and social connections that afford us the career risks that Varsha and I are taking with this move. Our hearts break for the families tied to Delhi by circumstances, filial duty, or the compulsions of a livelihood. We yearn for a day when the political will to improve Delhi’s air will emerge and manifest, and we will bring Vivien back home.