[Continued from yesterday’s Part 2 and the preceding Part 1.]
By: David A. Smith
Symptoms: Air pollution, water pollution, painful crime nodes; traffic jams; periodic rashes of civil disturbance; splotches of substandard housing; construction cranes; prevalence of kickbacks.
So unhealthy is the Delhi environment – especially the water and the air – that, as we saw yesterday, using Gardiner Harris’s essay on the noble science of self-justification in The New York Times (May 29, 2015), those who live in Delhi by economic choice take expensive steps to insulate themselves, as much as they can, from its environment, with ‘private’ (simply meaning, paid at market price) hospitals and the world’s most expensive ‘bungalows’.
It’s just a bungalow but it’s home to us
Exclusive by zoning and minimum lot size
But those people are in the tiny minority, the 1%’s 1% as it were, and for the 99.99% of are the others, consequences are more severe.
Population. Pollution. Overcrowding. Rush hour traffic jam on Chandni Chowk, the main throughfare of Old Delhi, leading up to the walls of the Red Fort.
Rush hour on Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi’s major thoroughfare
4. Overcrowding and unhealthy cities impair society’s growth
[Two years ago, we nearly left but we stayed], or at least I decided that. My wife seriously considered flying home immediately, and at the end of a summer visit to the United States with the kids months later, sobbed for hours on the return flight to Delhi.
Mr. Harris’s story produced some Twitter-trash-talk (at the moment, Twitter only empowers the intemperate) about his ‘first-world problems,’ yet that is absurdly unfair – Mr. Harris has those choices, and he’s every bit as entitled to make the best choices for his family as if he were poor.
Over the last year, often over chai and samosas at local dhabas or whiskey and chicken tikka at glittering embassy parties, we have obsessively discussed whether we are pursuing our careers at our children’s expense.
Enjoy your samosas, let Ganesha bless your enterprises
First-world problem though that may be, it’s a first-worlder who faces it, and the first-worlder has an option to withdraw – an option, I believe, that would be back for the emerging world.
After our second year here, Bram seemed fine. His earlier difficulties, though, led me to call some leading air pollution experts. The conversations were sobering.
“Knowing that I was putting my kids in a place that compromised their health for their lifetimes would be very difficult given all of the scientific evidence,” said W. James Gauderman, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.
If sex drives human reproduction, parenthood drives human achievement; what we build, we build for our children more than for ourselves. Should Mr. Harris work in Delhi, doing something that may abstractly help hundreds or thousands or even millions of poor children like his son, or should he return to America, and help his own child? “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins,” my father would quote, channeling the Indian blood that he believed or fancied to believe that we smiths had in ourselves. Benefit the world, or benefit your family: how do you choose?
Gauderman yearns to have everybody breathe free
Gauderman is the co-author of a landmark 2004 study showing that children raised in parts of Los Angeles — where pollution levels are a fraction of Delhi’s — face significant and probably permanent losses of lung function.
We know, as a matter of biological fact, that sickness makes you stupid. We know that childhood poverty damages your mind. We know the children of poor-to-rich-country immigrants grow up taller, stronger, healthier than their parents did. We know, in short, that overcrowding and slums damage human beings.
Even children who move to less polluted places during childhood never seem to entirely recover from earlier high pollution exposures, another study found.
We thus have a duty, insofar as we can, to help other people, neighborhoods, cities, countries, through the transitional; phase of urban slums and into an urban adulthood of healthy cities.
And children are by no means the only ones harmed. Many adults suffer near-constant headaches, sore throats, coughs and fatigue. Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, had to leave the city for 10 days in March to cure a chronic cough.
Even Delhi’s chief minister had to escape Delhi to recover
As I said when this post began, after only 2 ½ weeks in India, the Boss and I got horribly sick – and it was so bad that even today, five years later, she isn’t quite ready to go back.
Though she was enraptured by the Queens’ Cenotaphs
5. The public sector catches up only when the middle class is drowning in soot and filth and disease and crime
Framing this way isn’t judgmental or moralistic, just the utterly amoral Law of Economic Gravity. Because there ain’t no such thing as free infrastructure, the up-front cost of its establishment or expansion has to be paid for somehow – and in a pure-market context, the infrastructure stops at the equilibrium boundary where those being added to the grid cannot pay enough to make extending it worthwhile. When this happens, as we’ve seen, the result is a slum – private investment outrunning public infrastructure. But the slum produces negative externalities, which the very poor tolerate because they have no practical choice if they wish to remain in the city – and they desperately wish to remain in the city because they believe, quite correctly, that this is the right strategy for parents who love their children.
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.
You have to breathe, don’t you?
The rich (or the government, which in economic terms is always funded mainly by the rich) can change these infrastructure economics only by ‘buying down’ the cost of that infrastructure, by making capital payments that they do not expect to recover directly – this means either charity, imperial beneficence (Augustus Caesar ran free water through Rome), or the ‘pooled involuntary charity’ known as taxes. The middle class will make this pooled involuntary charitable contribution only if in doing so it gains some non-monetary benefit from it – urban stability, say, or air that doesn’t harm rich children as well as poor ones.
Bram spent the next five days at home, with my wife giving him heavy doses of inhaled steroids through a mask. He has a quiet sadness during these crises, perhaps because they force him to accept the idea that his health is more fragile than that of his brother or friends.
Before coming to Delhi, Bram had had a couple of breathing episodes that doctors assured us he would most likely outgrow. Now he has full-blown asthma and must take powerful daily medications.
Then self-interest becomes, shall we say, enlightened:
It would be worth paying something for this to go away
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.
Delhi was not always so unhealthy for children and other living things; the ill health arises from the intensity of urbanization – it’s a side effect of taking the economic-growth-hormone known as industrializing the city:
Similar discussions are doubtless underway in Beijing and other Asian megacities, but it is in Delhi — among the most populous, unsanitary and bacterially unsafe cities on earth — where the new calculus seems most urgent.
Indian commuters wait for a bus early on a polluted morning in New Delhi on January 31, 2013. Air Quality Index (AQI) pollution markers were at hazardous levels around the city. AFP PHOTO/ Prakash SINGH
Double danger: Delhi bus in the smog
For three decades Meg Greenfield was a curious (thoughtful, sharp-eyed, steady, refined) editor of the Washington Post and Newsweek columnist, and upon her death she bequeathed Washington, a posthumous book of essays of political truth, in one chapter of which she described a politician’s children are a direct hot line to his or her emotional core
Ruth R. Faden, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, said children have a special claim to protection. “First, because they are so dependent on us for their well-being, and second because deprivations in childhood have such an outsize effect,” she said.
Greenfield observed that a politician’s children or grandchildren are a policy market signal that the elected official cannot block, cannot shut out, as in her book the senior Johnson Administration official whose position on the Vietnam War seeing his child arrested protesting the war. Children have that red-phone to the brain.
Your child is calling, and you have to take it
In the same way, slum dwellers have a direct line to politicians, if not through their formal channels then through their aggregate voice.
Money and structure flow down; voice flows up
The voice of the poor makes an end run around the neat hierarchical structures the government and the markets create; and the city’s effluent makes a similar end run. The wind blows where it will.
Would he have developed asthma if we had stayed in the United States? Pediatric asthma is far more likely to start and worsen in polluted locales. The sidelines at kids’ soccer games here are littered with inhalers.
For the upper classes, the choices are:
1. Stay and cocoon yourself while under progressive environmental siege.
2. Emerge from your castle and clean the whole city – not just one’s immediate vicinity, the whole city.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner addresses students during his visit to the American Embassy School, his former elementary school, in New Delhi October 9, 2012. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal
Former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, addressing students at the American Embassy School in Delhi, where he was a pupil
So many of our friends have decided to leave that the American Embassy School — this city’s great expat institution — is facing a steep drop in admissions next fall.
Plenty of fields for the kids to play
Emigration, or return to the developed-world haven, is feasible for the expatriate who’s living in an emerging city as a career-arc posting.
My pastor, who ministers to a largely expat parish here, told me he feared he would lose 60% of his congregants this summer.
Delhi‘s livability is much worse in summer than in winter; summer will be when the observant herd starts flying home.
Flying away, I leave the smog behind
[Continued tomorrow in Part 4.]