It is easy to spot Jeremy Williams from a distance. He is tall and muscular, hair neatly parted on the side, light beard. He stands amid giant trees and manicured grass inside the Lodi Gardens.
Williams, 34, is initially reluctant to talk about the problems he faces in Delhi. The diffident American hesitantly joins in the conversation. “There are good and bad things about each place,” he begins. “Other things you can deal with, but pollution is something that is difficult to counter.”
A freelance photographer who has been in Delhi for over two years, Williams lives here with his wife. She, he says, developed a grave respiratory condition last winter, coughing incessantly and throwing up blood almost every night. “It was really scary,” he recalls. “The doctors said that she was struggling to cope with the air in the city.”
If things fall into place, Williams will move back to his home in Newark later this year. “Delhi remains a fascinating place. But you have to make a choice sometimes,” he says with a smile. A friend of Williams’s moved back to the United States last year as he wanted to start a family and was unsure if he wanted his child to grow up in such harsh climate.
Several expats like Williams’ friend have made their way back home in the last one year, prompted by the city’s dangerously high levels of toxic air, economic slowdown, incidents of crime and abysmal public health.
Hugo Ribadeau DumasIt came out in the open in May when The New York Times’ Delhi-based South Asia correspondent, Gardiner Harris, wrote a scathing piece on the city’s pollution that had forced him and his family to leave. His eight-year-old son’s asthma, he wrote, was aggravated so severely by Delhi’s putrid air that his lung capacity had fallen to less than half by the time he decided to head back home.
Harris’ account, though some found it exaggerated, was jarring and chilling at the same time. It was bound to create ripples in Delhi’s expat circles. And it did. In fact, according to a correspondent of a foreign newspaper working here, pollution is the first thing that is discussed at all expat dinners – before the monuments, food, scandals and nightlife.
Not without reason. A study published in science journal Nature last week said Delhi would continue to be among the three most polluted cities in the world till 2050. In 2014, World Health Organization rated Delhi as the most polluted city in the world, with its air toxicity double of Beijing. Dust from construction sites, emissions from the hundreds of thousands of cars and bikes on the city’s roads and particulates blowing in from the deserts of Rajasthan have turned Delhi’s air into a noxious cocktail.
Though most expats don’t mention it, the city’s water is no better. A 2012 study conducted by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi found 70 per cent of the city’s water unfit for drinking.
Frederick Lindbergh (name changed), a diplomat in one of the Scandinavian embassies in Chanakyapuri’s sprawling diplomatic enclave, says that more than the pollution, it is the appalling state of the city’s public health that has left him shocked.
Seated on a sofa in his vast office, dressed in a pristine sky blue shirt and navy blue trousers, complete with hip green socks, Lindbergh has no qualms to admit that something such as the recent outbreak of dengue in the city gets him scared. “You don’t want to wake up in the morning and read about dengue deaths in the papers. It is awfully scary,” he says.
Earlier this week, reports surfaced that at least 20 members of the diplomatic community were down with dengue, despite the much cleaner environment they live in.
The crimes against expat women have made matters worse. Statistics collated by the National Crime Record Bureau last month said that 2014 saw 164 cases of crime against foreigners registered in Delhi, making it one of the most unsafe places for expats in India. Many of these cases related to sexual assault. The infamous Nirbhaya rape and murder case, and the alleged rape of a woman by an Uber cab driver, have reinforced Delhi’s image as unsafe for women.
And a slowing economy has meant that multinationals are struggling to afford expats. When the Indian economy opened up in 1991, there was an influx of expatriates from across the world. That number shrunk sharply in the late-2000s due to the global meltdown. Companies find themselves in a similar predicament now.
To be fair, Delhi has hosted a growing number of people from Africa, Afghanistan, China, Ukraine, Japan and South Korea over the last few years. The recent exodus seems to be restricted to Europeans and Americans. That’s understandable: the living conditions in many of the other countries are not very different from Delhi. In some cases, like Afghanistan and Somalia, they are definitely worse.
Elisabeth RousselHow things have changed. Not so long ago, every ambitious diplomat, executive and journalist craved a stint in India. A sleeping giant had awakened, and there were careers to be made being a part of the transformation. And Delhi, more than cramped and expensive Mumbai, offered all the comforts expats could only dream of in their countries.
They got large homes and employed washmen, ayahs, drivers, cooks and gardeners — a small army of khidmatgars. Most of them, when they left at the end of their tenures, terribly missed the city’s alluring lifestyle. Clearly, the odds now outweigh these perks.
As a result, the ecosystem that had developed around the expat community now seems to be falling apart.
At the American Embassy School, enrollments have come down in the last year. The school is even struggling to recruit new teachers. While this may be due to several expats moving out, Jennifer Eliot from the school maintains that enrollment numbers fluctuate every year due to a number of reasons, including economic climate and diplomatic assignments.
The slumping state of Delhi’s real estate market is a fair indication of expats emptying out of the city. A large number of housing units lie untouched in areas such as Vasant Vihar, Shanti Niketan and Anand Niketan — localities that were once swarmed by the expat population.
Kajal Makhijani of MAK Realtors, a real estate firm that provides housing services to expats, says that business has been particularly bad in the last one year. “These days, I get calls only from Indians,” she rues.
Rakesh Jain, a property dealer in Vasant Kunj, confirms this. In his tiny office, as I take my seat on a rickety plastic chair, he shows me pamphlets of houses that have remained unoccupied in the last one year. “There is very little demand left in this area,” he says.
Business in markets that expatriates once relished is down. In the quiet neighbourhood of Sunder Nagar, where silence is often punctuated by roaring vehicle horns and the barking of dogs, art stores find themselves in the doldrums.
It is past 11 am and the market has just opened. The parking lot is largely empty and the number of people around sparse. A group of young men is buying cigarettes from a paan shop, which is engulfed by the stench from a huge garbage dump nearby.
As I look around, few go through the doors of the stores which sell expensive artifacts. Inside Nepal Art Palace, which is bedecked with some magnificent pieces of art, I ask the shop attendant — a short, bespectacled man, wearing a grey shimmery shirt — if the number of expat visitors has fallen. He blankly nods before another man intervenes and offers a more convincing reply: “Yes, fewer foreigners come in. We don’t know why.”
However, the plush Jor Bagh market still remains popular amongst expats. On most days, traffic in the area is minimal as splashy cars are neatly parked against pavements coated in resplendent green. At The Book Shop, one of the landmarks in the area, expatriates visit often — some of them even twice a week. “This locality still has expats in large numbers. You will always see foreigners around here. Sometimes, The Book Shop is full of them,” says James Reid, an Englishman who lives nearby.
Many expats have developed a love-hate relationship with the city. Elisabeth Roussel has an unexplained, almost dutiful penchant for India. Her eyes glint at the mention of mostly anything Delhi. “It is such a vibrant, complex city. I always wanted to come here,” says the Frenchwoman. She is 49 and has been working in a travel company in the city for seven years now, but still talks about Delhi like her new-found love — almost like a child who has just got its hands on a new toy.
But her optimism dissipates when I mention the abysmal state of the city’s air. “There is no denying that pollution is a major worry,” she says. There is discernible irritation when the conversation shifts to Delhi’s public transport. “The autowallahs are the biggest problem for me. You have to haggle with them all the time,” she rues. “Travelling in buses is worse.”
Nicola Smith is thankful that she lives alone in Delhi. As The Sunday Times’ South Asia correspondent, Smith shuttles between London and Delhi regularly, but prefers to call Delhi home. Having lived in the capital for six years now, Smith says that while Delhi has a flourishing culture and is a fantastic place to work in, she would be worried if she had to raise a family here.
“Personally, it has been great for me. I have never felt unsafe. But if were to raise a family here, I would be worried about things like pollution and the traffic,” she tells me on the phone from London. What bothers her most is the annoying lack of pavements and walkways in Delhi. “And the traffic is too heavy.”
Hugo Ribadeau Dumas, a 25-year-old Frenchman, says it was his single status that helped him tackle the city. Dumas spent two years in Delhi — one as a student at Jamia Millia Islamia University and the other working in the city. Now based in Dhaka and employed at the French Development Agency, Dumas says Delhi is a hard city to live in. “While I loved a lot of things about Delhi — mainly the food and cultural diversity — the traffic is chaotic, and the people rude and aggressive sometimes.”
He says that the city has a lot to learn from Patna — where he briefly lived — and Dhaka. “I was never worried about my safety at night there, pollution or the dangerousness of the roads.” A close friend of Dumas is moving back to Paris later this year, fearing for the health of his kids due to the pollution.
New Delhi has a problem on its hands.