Migration – Emigration – Fleeing A strange feeling to know that your home could kill you
I write to you from the midst of what Don Delillo calls an “Airborne Toxic Event” in his novel, White Noise.
A combination of vehicular pollution, crop fires, dust from construction sites, low pressures and low temperatures has enveloped New Delhi in a dense, acrid, smog. Pollution levels are 15 to 16 times – or 1500% - above safe levels.
“What do you see?” you asked at the end of your last email. I look out of my window and see a yellow haze that obscures the usual view of trees, rooftops and occasional telephone tower.
As per data collection by the government, Delhi – my city of 22 million, the capital of India – is currently unfit for human habitation.
The newspapers are full of articles comparing the efficacy of various types of facemasks, indoor air purifiers, plants and trees that cut down on pollution, and the chances that regular exercise – and the heavy breathing that results – will kill you, rather than make you healthier.
This is good time to consider why people choose to stay or leave a particular place.
When does the musafir feel that it time to move on?
When the fighting intensifies in her neighbourhood, when a family member dies, when the rising waters flood the basement, and then the ground floor, when the supermarket shelves slowly empty, and the food trucks come only once a week, then once a month, then once in a while.
Here in the national capital, on the fringes of the Thar Desert, on plain land, we thought we were safe from war and rising sea levels. We never thought our crisis would be a slow-moving cloud of toxic gases would envelope our city.
“What is our tipping point?” we ask each other in Delhi. Winter in 2014 was unbearable, 2015 was better, now in 2016 we have the worst air we’ve had for two decades.
What is the specific point for each Delhi resident to decide that the toxicity of the Delhi air outweighs the many joys of living here?
Some have already begun to leave – land prices in the idyllic southern state of Goa have been rising steadily for some years now as wealthy Delhi-ites have bought up homes and apartments to move in to.
Thus far, the émigrés – like in the early stages of any crisis - are restricted to those who can afford to move: retired pensioners, young freelancers who can work from anywhere, the idle wealthy who don’t need to work and thus live away from the city and drop in occasionally to keep in touch with their friends.
Employed elites like myself, who choose to work here, are considering buying air purifiers to go with the water purifiers that many of us already own.
The multiplicity of factors has befuddled everyone – even our normally voluble politicians are unsure of whom to blame. Everyone – to varying degrees – is responsible: wealthy car owners with their energy intensive lifestyles, middle class motorcyclists, rural farmers who clear their fields by burning crop stubble.
For now, we are reduced to praying to nature: a deluge to wash out the particles suspended in the air, a gale to dispel the cloud of smog hanging over the city, a week of scorching sunshine to raise temperatures and push the pollutants to the upper reaches of the atmosphere.
The environment, the experts have warned for years, will soon become one of the biggest causes for displacement and migration. War and climate change, war caused by climate change, will force millions of us to move.
I introduce Delhi and its air into our conversation to gesture to the limits of the current political discourse - be it Germany, India or the United States.
We speak evaluate our leaders on how well they uphold our values – European values, American values – but do we even have a set of political values to talk about environmental catastrophe?
This last week has made me think that the current refugee crisis is the first step in an evolving a new paradigm of values and debates. The refugee crisis has known causes and effects – war in the Middle East, urban devastation, and a refugee crisis – and yet it has managed to upend many debates we considered to be settled. It has breathed life into demagogues – we thought – had been lain to rest.
But what happens when we are confronted by a crisis without easily identifiable actors. In Delhi, as I said earlier, we don’t even know whom to direct our rage at. Who do we blame for our troubles? Who shall be the scapegoat we shall burden with the city's pollution and then sacrifice?
This week I found myself turning to another book - Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, a journalist who won the Nobel Prize for literature. In Chernobyl, a compilation of haunting monologues about the nuclear disaster, this particular one stood out:
To this day, I can see the bright, raspberry red glow. The reactor seemed lit up from inside. It was an incredible colour...In the evening, everyone came out on to their balconies; if they didnt have one, they went to their friends and neighbours...People brought out their chldren and lifted them up. 'Look! Don't forget this!' And these were people who worked at the reactor.
Then she writes:
From the beginning, we had a sense that we people from Chernobyl were now outcasts. Other people were afraid of us. The bus we were travelling in stopped for the night at a village...One woman invited us to stay with her.
'Come, I'll make up a bed for you. I feel sorry for that son of yours.'
Another woman nearby pulled her away from us. 'You're crazy!' she said. 'They're infectious.'
After we had been resettled in Mogilyov, my son went to school. He burst into the house after his first day, crying. He had been sat next to a girl, and she complained she didnt want to sit there because he was 'radiated' and if she sat next to him she might die... They were all afraid of him. They called him the 'Glow-worm', or the 'Chernobyl hedgehog.'
I realize that I have not engaged with many of the questions you raised in your email – but today, it is hard to think of much else.
It has been a strange feeling this last week - to know that your home could kill you.
New Delhi, 6 November 2016