Suitcases of different sizes and colours, briefcases and cartons lay scattered on the floor. Little Paridhi, sitting amid these, carefully takes out the letters “O” and “J” from an alphabet sticker sheet and sticks it right in the middle of a blue Samsonite suitcase. She follows it up with “H” and “A”, spelling out her surname.
Packing is in full swing at the Ojha household in Delhi’s Noida Sector 137 as they gear up to leave for Canada in a month—not voluntarily, though. It is the hazardous air of the city that is forcing them to relocate.
It all started post-Diwali in November 2017, when the city was engulfed in a thick blanket of smog. Sitting with her husband and daughter in their two-bedroom apartment, Tulika Ojha remembers her six-year-old daughter, Paridhi, fell severely sick—continuous coughing kept them awake all night. Pollution was at its peak with the air quality index (AQI) touching 999, going past the safe limits over 10 times at some locations in the city.
While Paridhi was already suffering from respiratory problems, it only worsened due to the air condition. “I have a skin allergy which got worse due to the pollution,” says Tulika. “When we went to the paediatrician he said I have passed on the allergy to her but it has manifested in a respiratory way and again, pollution made it even worse.”
The Ojhas’ home in Noida Sector 137.
A student of Shiv Nadar School, Paridhi couldn’t even go out to the playground. In fact, her school was shut for some days, thanks to the black haze that overlay the city. “The moment she stepped out, she would always come back sick,” states Manoj Ojha, Paridhi’s father.
This brought them to the inevitable question: what is the solution? “Our doctor suggested we move out of the city. That’s when it hit us,” says Tulika.
Agreeing with her, Manoj adds, “She had respiratory problems from a long time but we thought that it would heal with time. The city’s air quality kept deteriorating and we saw that there was no respite. Not just during winter, here the air quality is so bad throughout the year that there was no respite from the pollution.”
Paridhi developed respiratory allergies with adenoids, which gets better with age but one can never say when. At this tender age, she has to take steroids in the form of sprays when her condition gets severe. She is constantly on Montair 5mg which helps in building immunity and Nebulizers are also quite frequent.
Tulika takes us back to a time when Paridhi would fall sick every alternate day for weeks. “We had to keep shoving antibiotics down her throat, and honestly you do not want so many chemicals going into your child’s body. That’s the most disheartening thing as a parent. One day, I had a breakdown because of all the medicines and nasal spray she had to take.”
This is not the childhood that Tulika and Manoj want to give their daughter—one where even stepping out of the house seems to be a luxury she cannot risk. Hence when the doctor suggested they should leave the country, they knew they had to make a life-changing decision. “The person you trust the most is a doctor and when he tells you to leave the country, that was the defining moment for us. We seriously started thinking about moving out,” says Manoj.
Options of shifting to a coastal area or even the hills did come up, but neither of them seemed to be feasible if they were to look for a permanent solution for their child. The doctor said even if they were to shift to Goa, Paridhi’s condition will deteriorate in 2-3 years.
It has been one year and nine months, to be precise, since they started researching and zeroed in on Canada. Their foremost prerequisite: clean fresh air. Canada seemed to be the best option despite the lengthy permanent residency (PR) process. Both working as journalists in Delhi, uprooting themselves from the country would not fare well for them professionally. Shifting to Canada on August 7, they do not have a job secured there, whereas their joint income in India is around ₹2 lakh per month. However, they do not mind taking the risk. “The major issue for us is pollution, the rest of it can be taken care of,” says Manoj.
Packing in full swing as the family relocates in a month.
Relocating to another country is no easy task for anyone, and the same is true for this family. Right from the PR process to selling off their properties, it has been a harrowing experience. “It’s the most difficult decision of our life because we are both well-settled here. We have our house, jobs and family here. To leave all that behind, was the biggest decision—but anything for our daughter,” says Tulika, looking at Paridhi fondly.
On the same line Manoj adds, “It was a tough call, but the sooner we took it the better.”
It is indeed tough for Tulika who has been born and brought up in the capital. Living in the city, she considered it home and so much so that every time she flew into Delhi after a vacation, she would exclaim from the flight: “Oh, I am home! No place like Delhi.”
Calling herself a creature of habit, Tulika hates change. Paridhi takes after her. They therefore broke the news to her only a few days ago but in the past one month, they have slowly eased her into it. They informed her that on moving to Canada, her health will improve. On learning this, the first thing Paridhi asked was, “Mumma, I won’t fall sick anymore? I will go out and play?” The joy on Paridhi’s face was enough to make them push aside their struggling thoughts.
Her simple questions are a clear testament to how tough these past few months have been for her. Suffering from the age of five, she often cried out, wondering why she keeps falling sick and expressed her dislike for all the medicines. Quite naturally the antibiotics did not taste good and she would end up throwing up. When all these factors add up, they are sure they have made the right choice. Despite that there are several emotional setbacks, with withdrawal symptoms cropping up every now and then for the Ojhas.
Before their PR finally arrived on June 4, it was a roller-coaster of emotions, they admit. “While you want your PR to come quickly, at other times we felt it was good that it’s getting delayed. We could have some more time to eat our favourite food, to visit our favourite places.” There were times when Tulika broke down and asked Manoj how they will leave all of this behind.
“This house,” she says looking around at her apartment, “every little thing we handpicked and made it with a lot of care, and having to sell of all these stuff—it’s heart-wrenching to say the least.”
Paridhi meanwhile is busy playing with a huge teddy bear which unfortunately she will not be able to take with her. A lot of her toys are being given away to other children.
Tulika lets out a long sigh glancing at all the suitcases and the rest that is left to be packed. “You would not believe how difficult it is to pack 10 years of our lives into six boxes. It is the most daunting challenge ever.” She adds that almost 75 per cent of the packing is done.
Selling off their car, furniture and house all in a month’s time has been quite a task for the Ojhas. While friends and relatives are asking them how it feels right now to pack up and sell it all off, Tulika has only one answer for them: “It does feel bad but for me, my home is Manoj and Paridhi .”
The family says it was an extremely difficult decision but they think they’ve made the right choice.
But not all of them have been so understanding with their decision. “Pollution ke liye desh kaun chodta hain?” was a common reaction from many of them. “We do get jittery but at the end of the day we just look at her face and we know we are doing the right thing. It is difficult to change cities let alone countries, but we have our reasons.”
A recent study by Greenpeace and AirVisual ranks Noida to be the sixth among the most polluted cities in the world. And this is enough reason for the Ojhas to move out of the city.
Even though Paridhi says that she will miss her friends and teachers, she is rather looking forward to moving out now. She often asks Siri to show photos of Toronto and gets excited about building a snowman. Paridhi will be going to school here one last time to bid farewell to her friends. “She does say she misses her friends and since she is in first grade it will easier for her to adapt there, so everything was taken into account and it all just made sense,” says Manoj.
While familiarity and love for this place tends to pose as major setbacks, they feel they have no other option. Manoj points out that while there is a focus on clean drinking water, not much is being done to provide fresh air. Even though they have a purifier installed at home, one cannot really protect themselves from the air.
The Ojhas are not the only family that have been driven out of their homes for the degrading air quality in Delhi. There have been other cases, albeit small in number, where families have relocated out of the city. Pollution migrants, as they are called, is slowly but surely growing to be an alarming trend in the city.
Update on November 4: Seeing this story online today, Paridhi’s father telephoned Newslaundry and said his daughter is very happy and much healthier in the clean air of their new home in Canada.
Photos: Naresh Sharma