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Delhi pollution: Diplomats in city say this isn’t what we signed up for

Some missions have cut down on non-essential staff in Delhi, and have moved positions to neighbouring countries like Singapore.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: November 13, 2017 6:21:24 am
Delhi pollution, Delhi smog, Delhi diplomats, pollution children, Diplomats in Delhi, Birds photographed through the fog in Delhi NCR. (AP Photo/File)

* A 40-year-old diplomat from a West Asian country, with no history of respiratory ailments, developed bronchial asthma in the last two years of her posting here.

* An Australian diplomat, a jogger who has run marathons, left Delhi last week after her stint. She could not run in the open on most days, and had to stick to the gym.

* Many European missions are losing the “attractiveness” of the India posting, one of the most sought-after political capitals in the world.

These are some of the vignettes from the diplomatic community based in Delhi, which is saddled with sick leaves and respiratory ailments as air pollution worsens. Many said they are considering cutting short their stints.

“I fought hard to come to India… the competition to get a Delhi posting was quite high. After a year-and-a-half, I don’t think I’m ready for any more. I will try to go to another place next summer, after I finish two years here,” a European diplomat, whose children have developed respiratory illnesses, said.

As the British royal couple visited Delhi, Prince Charles, when asked about the pollution, said, “I am trying to get used to it.”

Though many embassies are equipped with air purifiers and houses are well-sealed, diplomats said it isn’t enough. “You cannot sit inside a room and conduct diplomacy… you have to go out and meet people,” a French diplomat said.

“Not every embassy can afford to buy purifiers. And how many can one buy? With quality of life going down with air quality, this will become a hardship posting,” an east European diplomat said, referring to categorisation of diplomatic missions across the world as per “hardship levels”.

Typically, conflict or security-sensitive places are categorised as “hardship postings”. Many countries pay “hardship allowance” for serving in those countries, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Some become “non-family postings” if the hardship levels cannot be compensated by an allowance. Kabul and Islamabad are considered “non-family” stations due to security reasons, and many diplomats fear that if Delhi’s air quality does not improve, it may also join the ranks.

An Italian embassy staffer said poor air quality has led to more “sick leaves” among staffers, which hampers work. “The worst affected are smaller embassies with less staff,” he said.

Most European, American and Japanese diplomats get paid to install air purifiers at home. Embassies also have them, and some even have purifiers in their cars. A European diplomat said the German and Swiss embassies have the “best air purifiers”.

Heading to Haryana for a public event Friday, Israeli ambassador Daniel Carmon tweeted: “On our ‘smoggy’ way to inaugurate the 1st @MASHAVisrael #Indian #Israeli Beekeeping Center of Excellence in Haryana.”

Some missions have cut down on non-essential staff in Delhi, and have moved positions to neighbouring countries like Singapore. “Postings here used to be three-four years, now it is being reduced to two-three years,” a diplomat said.

Many diplomats also expressed worry for their children.

“The German school at Malcha Marg has the best air purifying system… but it has limited capacity. Since 2013, the question of how best to deal with pollution has been discussed at all school committees,” a diplomat said. “Our students want to, and should, exercise. But extreme exertion can be detrimental to their health.”

The French embassy’s school, Lycée Français de Delhi, has 65 air purifiers, which are started at full power at 7 am every day.

“The school is a place where our youngest, but also our staff, spend many hours… Air pollution has also become an educational subject at the school. Primary school students are encouraged by teachers to wear masks when they leave the classroom,” a diplomat said.

The American school is considering proposals for “covered play spaces” for physical activity, diplomats said. And the British school follows a colour-coded flag system to inform whether the air quality is good enough to allow outdoor activities.

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