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Abhilasha Purwar, 29, has been carrying a portable oxygen can around with her for the past seven days. The Gurugram resident and founder of Blue Sky Analytics spent most of the late October days measuring emissions and tracking the use of crackers during Diwali. Purwar’s startup monitors air quality and pollution emissions using satellite data.

The excursions have been great to gather data for work but have wreaked havoc on Purwar’s lungs. “I had a coughing spell for about four days," says Purwar, who works out regularly and describes herself as “very fit". “When you cough incessantly, that’s a lot of pressure on your heart and lungs." The doctor advised her to use the oxygen can four to five times a day to combat shortness of breath.

Two weeks ago, Delhi’s air quality deteriorated so sharply that the government issued a red alert and closed schools. Digital healthcare startup Practo recorded a 39% increase in demand for general practitioners after Diwali, with most of the queries revolving around respiratory problems.

In a recent survey by online platform LocalCircles, 40% residents said they would like to leave Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) and move somewhere else, while 31% said they would stay in Delhi-NCR and equip themselves with air-purifiers, masks and plants.

“Air pollution affects the human body in the short- and the long -term in ways that are detrimental to health," says Rahul Nagpal, director (paediatrics), Fortis Vasant Kunj, Delhi. Vulnerable people are the most at risk, he adds, citing studies linking air pollution to decreased cognitive performance among the elderly. Air pollution can also increase the risk of lung cancer, heart disease and acute respiratory infections, among people across age groups, he adds.

Escaping the air

Akash Premsen of Solera has filled his Delhi home with plants and air purifiers
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Akash Premsen of Solera has filled his Delhi home with plants and air purifiers (Photo: Hemant Rawat/Mint)

Some professionals have taken the bold step of moving out of the city—temporarily or permanently. Akash Premsen, 38, vice-president of multinational company Solera, who has lived in Delhi all his life, took off to Nainital for two weeks with his wife, children (aged 4 and 21 months) and two dogs. Premsen and his family have been doing this for the past four years. “We cannot relocate to another city because of the nature of my work, and I can’t afford to take off more than two weeks. But I am lucky that my company understands that I don’t have to be physically present in the office to work," he says. Premsen plans his schedule well in advance and his Nainital home has good data connectivity.

Srinivas Ganesh, 32, assistant creative director at Delhi’s 2626 Creative Studio, too escapes the city during Diwali and the crop-burning season. “Every other person I know travels home for Diwali, but I travel away from home. Of late, the pollution has been especially hard on me," says Ganesh, who is asthmatic. He doesn’t take much leave during the rest of the year, saving it for this time so that he can avoid being in the city when the pollution peaks. “I returned last week but even if the air has improved, it’s challenging for an asthmatic to breathe. I have to carry my inhaler and mask wherever I go."

Others postpone travel to the Capital. Bengaluru’s Ravish Naresh, co-founder of B2B startup KhataBook, has postponed meetings in Delhi. “Many of my friends in Delhi have fallen sick because of the pollution. I cancelled my trip and took them as calls instead. My investors understood why," he says.

Some have moved out of the city altogether. Kapil Arora, 42, chief executive of creative agency 82.5 Communications, moved to Mumbai three months ago after spending seven years in Gurugram. “We moved for my 10-year-old son. I love Gurugram but jaan hai to jahaan hai (health is wealth)," says the advertising professional.

It wasn’t as easy for Pooja Goyal to move her family to Bengaluru from Gurugram. Goyal, 46, co-founder of Intellitot, which runs preschool and day care centres, and her husband have family in Delhi, but in 2014 her younger daughter, then eight, developed asthma and had to be hospitalized twice. In 2016, they decided to move. “Our eyes would water when even going downstairs within the house. I thought this is not the life I want to live," she says. They picked Bengaluru because the air quality was better, but career-wise it was a difficult move. “My business partner was in Delhi and I either had to expand in Bengaluru or exit the business. It was a big risk I took," she says. Eventually, she exited the business last year, and is now looking for options.

Some consciously choose not to not to settle in the Capital. Prankul Middha, 43, moved back to India from London last year and picked a job with a software consultancy firm in Jaipur over more lucrative offers in Delhi. “I grew up in Delhi. It’s home but it’s changed and the air quality has worsened," he says.

Focus on relocation

Headhunters too say people in Delhi are approaching them to find jobs in other cities. Executive recruitment organization Antal International has seen 15-20% increase in candidates from Delhi-NCR looking to relocate owing to the air pollution. “We are also seeing candidates hesitating to take up roles that will require them to move to northern states. One CXO level person, originally from Delhi moved to South-East Asia few years ago, and is looking to move back to India, but the person does not want to come to Delhi. In another case, we are hiring data engineers for a US-based big data company but most candidates are not willing to take up the role, citing current pollution crisis in the north," says Joseph Devasia, managing director, Antal International, India.

Those who can’t leave the city try to ensure they work in a place with clean air. That was one of the prime factors for Rudra Pratap Singh, 34, to choose his current workplace. “When I started interviewing with Candor TechSpaces in Noida, I found out that they have air-purifiers in the office. It’s one of the reasons that contributed to my choosing the job," says Singh.

Purwar of BlueSky Analytics is now intending to raise funds that will enable her to shift her 10-member team to another city for the next winter. “We don’t want to risk another Diwali. We still have to be in Delhi but we can avoid October to January here. We are going to have air pollution refugees if we don’t do something about this," she says.

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