NEW DELHI — It’s a life that many envy: plush salaries, international schools for the children and wine-soaked parties on weekends. But for New Delhi's diplomatic corps, the sweet life is missing one key ingredient: clean, breathable air.
Pollution levels in India this month are so bad that diplomats are fretting about whether to stay or leave. Some, like Costa Rica’s ambassador, have already left the city after developing respiratory problems. Others are calling in sick to work or worrying about their children’s health. Some missions, according to the Indian Express, have even moved nonessential staff to nearby countries such as Singapore.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has traveled extensively to boost India's international image and attract foreign investment, including a recent trip to Manila, where he met leaders at the summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But his efforts may be getting scuppered on home ground, as diplomats gasping for air report home about the debilitating pollution crisis.
“I’m a living proof that our planet is dying today, coughing as i write with my indian bronchitis,” wrote Mariela Cruz Alvarez, Costa Rican ambassador to India, in a blog post.
Pollution levels in Delhi peaked in November. Levels of carcinogenic PM 2.5 particles in the air were 70 times over the safe limit as prescribed by the World Health Organization, and the air quality index reached 999 micrograms per cubic meter, the highest instruments can measure. A number of factors contributed to the spike, including crop burning in surrounding states, construction and vehicles in the city, and a lack of wind to blow the dust away.
A recent study in the British medical journal Lancet linked 2.5 million deaths in India in 2015 to pollution.
Responsibility for curbing the pollution quickly descended into a finger-pointing match, with state and central government ministers blaming each other for the crisis. Modi’s environment minister, Harsh Vardhan, in a television interview underplayed the impact of pollution, saying that it could not be directly linked to deaths. “No death certificate has the cause of death as pollution,” he said.
In the end, little has been done and the main remedy still appears to be waiting for the wind to blow it away — a response that no doubt has also made it into the diplomatic dispatches home.
By Thursday, the government had already rolled back several measures introduced over the weekend to curb the smog, as the haze lifted and air quality readings slightly improved. Trucks were allowed to reenter the city and construction was allowed to resume.
Many among the diplomatic community remained concerned about their health as readings continued to show unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air.
Although shielded from the smog that most Delhi residents live in by air purifiers and gas masks, diplomats said pollution hampered work. “You cannot sit inside a room and conduct diplomacy… you have to go out and meet people,” an unnamed French official told the Express.
Thai ambassador Chutintorn Gongsakdi formally wrote to Bangkok requesting that Delhi be made a “hardship” posting, usually reserved for conflict zones, which would allow Thai diplomats posted here more perks, including air purifiers and medical checkups as well as trips back home and extra days off as compensation for having to live in smog.
One unnamed diplomat told the Express that the length of postings to Delhi had been shortened by a year. Others said they were considering cutting short their stints. “I fought hard to come to India,” an unnamed European diplomat said. “After a year and a half, I don’t think I'm ready for any more. I will try to go to another place next summer, after I finish two years here.”
In diplomatic schools, air purifiers are whirring at full speed. The Lycée Français reportedly has 65 air purifiers. The American school may introduce covered outdoor play areas for physical activity, the Express reported.