Smog lifts, but com­pa­nies’ view of pol­luted Delhi skies is dim

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

As New Delhi grap­pled with its worst smog in 17 years, the head of In­dia’s largest mo­bile pay­ment firm got on a plane and left, one of thou­sands of pro­fes­sion­als es­cap­ing pol­lu­tion that could cost the cap­i­tal and the broader econ­omy dear.

Vi­jay Shekhar Sharma, founder of PayTM pay­ment start-up, left last Sun­day for a tem­po­rary stay in Mum­bai, wor­ried about the impact of haz­ardous clouds of dust, smoke and fumes that hang over Delhi dur­ing the win­ter months. “It be­came very vis­i­bly clear that it is go­ing to be tough in Delhi, espe­cially with young kids,” Sharma said in Mum­bai.

“We were wor­ried that it could cre­ate longterm (health) prob­lems.” His com­pany, which has con­sid­ered mov­ing from its base out­side Delhi, has in­stalled air pu­ri­fiers, brought in plants and masks and of­fered ex­tra health as­sis­tance. Tele­coms op­er­a­tor Idea Cel­lu­lar and oth­ers have al­lowed more em­ploy­ees to work at home, and hired buses so that car traf­fic is re­duced - all at their own ex­pense.

A few com­pa­nies are thriv­ing from the heavy smog hang­ing over the city ear­lier this month providers of face masks and air pu­ri­fiers have seen sales soar. But oth­ers, like the car man­u­fac­tur­ers, are in the fir­ing line of lo­cal and national politi­cians who want to re­duce the deadly haze, while es­tate agents and tour op­er­a­tors have com­plained of a slow­down in busi­ness. Delhi, home to around 17 mil­lion peo­ple, is among the fastest grow­ing states in In­dia. Its $84 bil­lion econ­omy has been ex­pand­ing at more than 8 per­cent for the past two years, faster than a 7.4 per­cent national av­er­age. Its air qual­ity, mean­while, has de­te­ri­o­rated, even by the stan­dards of a coun­try with some of the world’s most pol­luted cities. Con­di­tions had im­proved by Fri­day, but the prob­lem is peren­nial and has been par­tic­u­larly acute this win­ter. Com­pa­nies have yet to tot up the cost of a week of cough­ing, splut­ter­ing and wa­ter­ing eyes, but lo­cal in­dus­try lobby group As­socham es­ti­mates “sev­eral bil­lions of dol­lars” of new in­vest­ments are un­der threat. A study by the World Bank shows Asia’s third-largest econ­omy lost 8.5 per­cent of its GDP in 2013 due to air pol­lu­tion.

“WORST ON EARTH”

Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a global real es­tate ser­vices firm serv­ing large cor­po­rates, said some clients were re­con­sid­er­ing Delhi as a base, as costs of work­ing there rise.

“This is in­creas­ing their op­er­a­tional costs as they are be­ing made to spend more to pro­vide a healthy work­place to their em­ploy­ees,” said San­tosh Ku­mar, a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive at the firm.

Delhi’s im­age is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing more widely, a headache for tour pro­mot­ers and a gov­ern­ment tout­ing “Brand In­dia”. Some lo­cal tour op­er­a­tors say they are al­ready re­ceiv­ing re­quests from over­seas part­ners to re­draw the itin­er­ary of for­eign tourists to avoid even an overnight stay in Delhi. Busi­ness trav­ellers say they are can­celling trips. “The on­go­ing tourism sea­son, which is yet to pick up, could see a max­i­mum hit,” As­socham said. Ex­pa­tri­ates are also think­ing twice about liv­ing in the In­dian cap­i­tal. JLL’s Ku­mar said more smog could see for­eign­ers pack­ing their bags, a blow to real es­tate as well as employment.

Lisa Ak­er­man, a Swedish national who lives in an af­flu­ent Delhi neigh­bour­hood, said au­thor­i­ties needed to do much more than they were. Ak­er­man moved to the city two years ago with her fam­ily and has taken mea­sures to en­sure clean air in her apart­ment for her two small daugh­ters. Still, the chok­ing smog left her wor­ried about their health.

Ear­lier this week, she de­cided to take them out of the city for a while. “The pol­lu­tion level is too much for the chil­dren,” she said by ‘phone from Goa, where she is camp­ing with her kids. “While I love Delhi, its air qual­ity will be a ma­jor con­sid­er­a­tion in de­cid­ing whether we want to ex­tend our stay here.”

NOT EV­ERY­ONE LOSES

The lo­cal gov­ern­ment has taken steps to re­duce traf­fic amid wide­spread pub­lic anger at pol­lu­tion that has caused chok­ing, wheez­ing and breath­less­ness. Li­cences are be­ing with­drawn for diesel-pow­ered ve­hi­cles older than 15 years, and au­thor­i­ties are con­sid­er­ing re­sum­ing an “odd-even” scheme, un­der which cars can only travel in the city on al­ter­nate days de­pend­ing on their reg­is­tra­tion num­ber.

Those steps, and the risk that In­dia’s courts will im­pose stricter rules on emis­sions, are a po­ten­tial blow to for­eign and do­mes­tic car­mak­ers, some of whom have asked for greater clar­ity.

But not ev­ery­one is com­plain­ing about the smog. Ja­pan’s Daikin has seen sales of air pu­ri­fiers in­crease by up to three times since the Hindu Di­wali fes­ti­val, and its stock that had been ex­pected to last un­til March is ex­hausted. To meet grow­ing or­ders, the Osaka-based air-con­di­tioner maker in­creased ship­ments from its Thai fac­tory by 50 per­cent. Nir­vana In­dia, which dis­trib­utes the Vog­mask face mask in South Asia, re­ported soar­ing sales. It sold 300 to 400 pieces a week around this time last year, but since Di­wali at the end of Oc­to­ber, it has sold 5,000-8,000 a week and is seek­ing emer­gency stocks from Sin­ga­pore, China and Korea. “Ear­lier, only ex­pats, pa­tients and gov­ern­ment de­part­ments would buy these masks,” said chief ex­ec­u­tive Jaid­har Gupta. “Now ev­ery­one is buy­ing.” — Reuters

NEW DELHI: A woman crosses a road in a street in New Delhi which is in the grip of heavy smog.

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