Confronting India's Urban Disaster

Contrary to popular belief, Beijing's air pollution is not nearly the worst in the world. The air of Delhi, India, is twice as polluted. For expats, this disaster raises important questions: is it ethical to live, and raise children, in India?
June 8, 2015, 5am PDT | Josh Stephens
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Francisco Anzola

In the United States, it's becoming increasingly hard to appreciate the dangers of air pollution. Though work remains to be done, American cities and industries have managed to reduce exhaust through a variety of methods, some of which are considered expensive but which environmentalists consider good investments. To see the benefits of those investments, one needs only look, tragically, to India, whose cities have some of the worst pollution in the world. 

In an op-ed, New York Times correspondent Gardinier Harris makes this tragedy personal. While Indian citizens may have no choice but to suffer in dirty air, expatriates face a choice of whether to live in India or not. Harris, who lived in Delhi, argues that the dangers posed by air pollution increasingly make this not just a lifestyle choice but in fact a moral choice, with his children's lives literally at stake. 

"Delhi’s true menace came from its air, water, food and flies. These perils sicken, disable and kill millions in India annually, making for one of the worst public health disasters in the world. Delhi, we discovered, is quietly suffering from a dire pediatric respiratory crisis, with a recent study showing that nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air."

"Foreigners have lived in Delhi for centuries, of course, but the air and the mounting research into its effects have become so frightening that some feel it is unethical for those who have a choice to willingly raise children here. Similar discussions are doubtless underway in Beijing and other Asian megacities, but it is in Delhi — among the most populous, pollutedunsanitary and bacterially unsafe cities on earth — where the new calculus seems most urgent.

"Sarath Guttikunda, one of India’s top pollution researchers, who moved to Goa, on the west coast of India, to protect his two young children, was unequivocal: 'If you have the option to live elsewhere, you should not raise children in Delhi.'....And then there are nascent areas of research suggesting that pollution can lower children’s I.Q., hurt their test scores and increase the risks of autismepilepsydiabetes and even adult-onset diseases like multiple sclerosis."

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Published on Friday, May 29, 2015 in New York Times
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