Delhi is killing my kids: New York Times correspondent explains why he is leaving India

The fact that the residents of Delhi breathe some of the worst air in the world is hardly in doubt any more. Yet, despite a variety of reports raising alarm bells about the precipitous decline, there's no real sign of action. In an evocative piece for the New York Times that's being widely shared on social media, its South Asia correspondent Gardiner Harris documents his decision to move back to the United States to save his children's health.

Harris starts by documenting how he moved to India with his family three years ago, little realising 'how dangerous the city would be for his boys'. The Harisses quickly realised the perils of Delhi's poor air quality when their son's inhaler stopped working a mere nine months after they moved to the city.

AFP image

AFP image

"We nearly left two years ago, after Bram’s first hospitalization. Even after his breathing stabilized, tests showed that he had lost half his lung function. On our doctor’s advice, we placed him on routine steroid therapy and decided that as long as his breathing did not worsen again, we could stay in Delhi."

They received another rude shock when sewage water started trickling out of the taps of their brand new apartment building due Delhi's open and badly planned sewers.

The correspondent and his family, however, chose to remain -- Harris' choice over the objections of his wife -- until recently when the final straw broke the back of his decision:

"Yet one afternoon this spring, someone in our neighborhood burned something toxic, and an astringent cloud spread around our block. My wife was out walking with a friend, and their eyes became teary and their throats began to close. They bolted back inside our apartment where they found Bram gasping again, for the first time in two years."

He also points to the various health problems that come from high pollution including reduced lung capacity, earlier death, disability, autism, epilepsy, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and says there are also nascent studies that indicate it could reduce kids' IQ.

Harris acknowledges that there are many expatriates who have chosen to live on in Beijing, and even Delhi, despite documenting and knowledge about the  pollution around them but says his family's not one of them. His family's moving to Washington this week.

Harris claims that he is not alone, citing a steep fall in the admissions for the American Embassy school, and dwindling expat parishioners in his pastor's congregation,

there is little that is new in Harris' column about the state of Delhi's environment. Doctors have long been recommending parents to move their kids out of Delhi. As Firstpost's Tarique Anwar had reported, a study conducted by scientists from Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI) has found that the number of killer respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) in the air spiked to 316 µg/m3 (microgram per cubic metre) in 2014, which are double that of Beijing, from 161 µg/m3 in 2007.

This means that compared to children elsewhere, Delhi’s children were more prone to ‘upper and lower respiratory symptoms’ such as sinusitis, running or stuffy nose, dry cough, wheezing, breathlessness on exertion, chest pain or tightness and disturbed sleep due to breathing problems. It also meant that kids were more likely to develop conditions like hypertension.

But what Harris doesn't acknowledge is that this is not about Delhi alone.  Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata are no better with a recent survey by an NGO saying that 35 percent of school-going children suffer from poor lung health across all cities.

Harris has been getting a fair amount of support on social media:

But a number have been sharply critical:

Criticism of Harris' class and expat privileges aside, the fact remains that all this hand wringing has thus far produced very little. The AAP government has supported the ban of ten year old trucks, but shied away from any action on autos or private vehicles. The national government has chosen to blame the previous government rather than coming up with any tangible solutions. There is a ban on open burning of garbage, but it will take time to see if it will work.

Harris's letter can easily be dismissed as a final dispatch of a foreign national who is any way running away from a problem the rest of us have to live with. But it would be far more helpful if we treated him as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. What befell his child is merely an omen of what awaits our own.

Updated Date: Jun 01, 2015 12:10 PM

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