“Holding your breath in India”

When a family decides to move — pack up the house and start anew someplace new — it’s considered a big decision. From my own experiences, moving every few years, I know it requires a lot of thought, sacrifice, and courage.

From all the pros and cons that are weighed when making this decision, a career promotion, better schooling, being closer to family, or vice versa, I never imagined that health could be a concern.

Gardiner Harris, was a South Asia correspondent for the NY Times, moving his family and living in New Delhi for three years.

“My wife and I were both excited and prepared for difficulties — insistent beggars, endemic dengue and summertime temperatures that reach 120 degrees,” Harris said last week in Holding Your Breath in India. “But we had little inkling just how dangerous this city would be for our boys.”

Harris says his child’s health declined terribly because of the deplorable pollution in India. He calls out air pollution, public defecation, poor sanitation, and after dealing with those problems and putting his family’s health at risk, he decided to move back to the United States.

“There is a growing expatriate literature, mostly out of China, describing the horrors of air pollution, the dangers to children and the increasingly desperate measures taken for protection. These accounts mostly end with the writers deciding to remain despite the horrors.

Not this one. We are moving back to Washington this week.”

While I applaud Mr. Harris for bringing attention to the conditions there and making the difficult decision to move, the reality is that not everyone living there has that luxury. Millions suffer toxic air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, and sadly, there is no escape.

They live each day, holding their breaths, and outside of the upper class community, most probably lack the access or resources to even diagnose their health problems. The biggest concern to me, is not that India is “quietly suffering from a dire pediatric respiratory crisis,’ as Harris said, but that the people there just don’t seem to care. Even when they do care, the broad attitudes reflect a very low sense of political efficacy. The general public, in response to Mr. Harris’s piece, would say “that’s just the way it is.”

Expats like Mr. Harris and travelers can bring back their stories of the largely unsafe and unsanitary India, and while that definitely raises awareness and educates the rest of us, it doesn’t help the people living there. It’s easy for us to find the flaws there when we’re surrounded by manicured lawns and well-swept streets. But in order to truly change things, the people there have to care, and they have to know they have the power to influence change. India demands bigger public health campaigns, better resources and facilities for waste collection and water treatment, and environmental laws that are enforced — and  the people there need to demand it.


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