PANAJI, India – When Deepikah Bharadwaj was a child in New Delhi, she would look forward to the arrival of the Indian winter. The mornings would become chilly and crisp, while evenings were pleasantly cool. But in recent years, that sense of anticipation turned to dread.
With falling temperatures came a thick smog, leaving her short of breath and afraid to go outside. After her son was born in 2016, she decided it was time to act. These days, when she thinks of Delhi, her main emotion is relief at having escaped.
“I feel bad that I cannot go back to my home city, ever,” said Bharadwaj, 33, sitting in her light-filled apartment in the state of Goa on India’s western coast, more than 1,000 miles from Delhi. “It’s a feeling of permanent loss, like a friend who didn’t say goodbye.”
Bharadwaj is part of a small but growing contingent of what might be called pollution refugees: people who have decided that the only way to cope with Delhi’s staggering pollution is to run from it. Some, like Bharadwaj, have left the Indian capital for Goa, while others have decamped for Bangalore, Mumbai or even Canada.
The phenomenon appears limited to an elite few – a trickle in comparison to the influx of people who arrive in Delhi every day in search of economic opportunity. But the departures pose a pointed rebuke to the city’s expanding ambitions: How great is a city if its air causes some of the people who live there to flee?
According to the World Health Organization, Delhi has the most polluted air of any major metropolis in the world. The causes are multiple – vehicle exhaust, construction dust, industrial emissions, crop burning in nearby states – and exacerbated by geographic factors.
The “pollution season” in greater Delhi, home to 29 million people, begins in October and persists for months. November and December bring the worst readings of the year: Last week, the level of the particulate matter considered most harmful to human health spiked for several hours to more than 40 times the level recommended by the WHO before receding. Such particles can lodge deep within the lungs and have been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, respiratory infections and even cancer.
Those who can afford it do what they can to mitigate their exposure. They acquire face masks, buy air purifiers for their homes and plan trips outside the city with their children during school vacations. But for some in Delhi, such measures are inadequate at best. And they are willing to make difficult choices – such as quitting jobs and leaving behind family and friends – in search of cleaner air.
“It’s a national emergency,” said Mayur Sharma, the co-host of a popular food program who was born and raised in Delhi but left the city for good last year with his family. “The more we learned, the more scared we got.”
Sharma said that if his son ran around outside on autumn days, he would have difficulty breathing at night, requiring him to use a nebulizer. One afternoon two years ago, Sharma and his wife, Michelle Cornman, found themselves observing a surreal scene – a lavish outdoor children’s birthday party where all the kids were wearing pollution masks – and decided it was time to leave.
Their destination was a place they had visited on vacations: Goa, a tiny state popular for its beaches, coconut trees and relaxed pace of life. Now the family lives at the end of a quiet street in the Goan town of Porvorim. Their home sits next to a jungle, and they leave their windows open.
“You do feel like a defector,” said Cornman, 42, who spent a decade in Delhi. She said the couple tends not to discuss their decision or their new life with people back in the city. “It’s really hard to tell our friends, “Hey, it’s beautiful today, we went to the beach.’ ”
For Tracy Shilshi, the breaking point came last November after the Hindu festival of Diwali. The holiday is often celebrated by setting off firecrackers, which adds another element to Delhi’s toxic mix of pollution. “It got so bad you could literally feel the smog in your mouth,” said Shilshi, 37. On Facebook, she posted a plaintive poem about Delhi’s pollution by an unknown author.
Shilshi’s 3-year-old son had a constant runny nose, which her pediatrician attributed to Delhi’s air, while her father struggled with an ever-present cough. So after 25 years in the city, Shilshi quit her job as a television journalist and moved in April with her husband, children and parents to the southern part of Goa. Her son’s nasal issues cleared up within a week, as did her father’s cough. The air purifiers they once used in Delhi are now gathering dust in boxes.
Movers and headhunters confirm that people are leaving because of the bad air, even if they say they can’t quantify the trend. Suresh Raina, a partner at the search firm Hunt Partners, said that the winter has become an opportune time to persuade executives who do not have deep roots in Delhi to accept jobs in other cities. Such executives wake up “every November when the pollution deepens and the sky outside becomes darker, and they start making calls, saying, ‘I’m not staying here,’ ” Raina said.
Shiivani Aggarwal, chief executive of the Formula Group, a relocation specialist, said she had encountered several examples of pollution driving people out: One family moved to Hyderabad last year after their young child had trouble breathing in Delhi; another couple arrived in Delhi from Mumbai two months ago but is already looking to leave because of the pollution; a third couple decided to live apart – he in Delhi, she in Goa – because of the bad air.
About a month ago, Aggarwal said, her own husband even raised the idea of leaving. They’re not going anywhere for now.
“This kind of migration out for people who can afford it, I think it’s right at the beginning,” said Vindhya Tripathi, a self-described pollution refugee living in Goa. She and her two children left Delhi last December after ruminating about a move for years; her husband still works in the city and flies down on weekends.
Her home sits on a hill above the Mapusa River with a view of a wide green valley. “I would like to believe that things will change” in Delhi, said Tripathi, 39. But such change is “definitely not going to happen in the next five years, while my children are children.”
Others are more hopeful. It may take a half a decade or more for the air to improve, but “there’s nothing that can’t be done,” said Mrida Joshi, 37, as she sat on the veranda of her home in a small Goan village.
Dusk was falling and her 3-year old twin daughters were running around barefoot. Joshi left Delhi in September and plans to remain in Goa until March, when the pollution in the capital eases somewhat. Delhi “has a great vibe, I love it, it’s home,” she said, but “I cannot live in denial.”