DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And more now on a public health crisis in India. No country has more cities with toxic pollution. In the wintertime, air pollution in New Delhi gets even more hazardous. And NPR's Julie McCarthy met families who've decided to flee the capital for the sake of their health.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Perhaps the most infamous instance of air pollution in history is the great London smog of 1952, which was a lethal disaster.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Deaths in Greater London last week totaled more than 4,700.
MCCARTHY: Sixty-four years later, Delhi had its own air-pocalypse (ph) without the mass fatalities. Last month, Delhi was shrouded under a blanket of pollutants. For days, the city record levels of pollution never seen before. And it descended during the festival of Diwali, when the city is ablaze with fireworks that choke the air. Mayur Sharma returned to Delhi just after Diwali.
MAYUR SHARMA: I think that was the best thing that could have happened because when you're confronted with that reality - when you step out and you can see the smoke and you can smell the stink - then you know you have no other choice.
MCCARTHY: When confronted with a toxic haze that shrunk visibility to nearly zero, the choice was to leave.
SHARMA: We took the decision that at least my wife and children are going to move out of this gas chamber, move to a cleaner environment for a period of two to three months till January when the air is really bad. And I hope to follow suit.
MCCARTHY: Sharma, a television personality, didn't just abandon Delhi. He worked to raise awareness to clean up its pollution as part of an NGO, Care for Air. Sharma insists there is a right to breathe.
SHARMA: Because, I mean, the right to breathe is, you would think, the most fundamental right - more than food, more than water. And that right is being seriously compromised right now.
MCCARTHY: Saurabh Bhasin's belief in his children's right to breathe led him to file a public interest lawsuit in their name last year. He notes that Delhi's air is not just bad in winter but year-round.
SAURABH BHASIN: We went to the Supreme Court because it was a last resort. Nobody was doing anything about it. And, you know, it had been years since the World Health Organization had been saying that it's the worst air quality in the world. But nobody cared.
MCCARTHY: Delhi's pollution is a complex mix of diesel truck emissions, burning crops, coal-burning power plants and millions of households burning garbage. The Supreme Court cited the grave quality of Delhi's air when it sided with Bhasin's children and, last month, declared the sale of fireworks in the capital illegal. But Bhasin, an attorney, says there's only so much the court can do, and his family has escaped Delhi for London while he travels back and forth.
BHASIN: I don't think it's unique, our situation. I think there are a fair few people who are now - who have either, sort of, voted with their feet and left.
MCCARTHY: Bhasin and Sharma are the leading edge of middle-class professionals who are leaving Delhi, aware that it's a luxury most of the 20 million inhabitants of the city can only dream of. Entrepreneur Jay Kannaiyan, who could also quit Delhi, has invested heavily in those who can't. He is the head of Smart Air India, a rapidly growing startup that makes purifiers priced for households with modest incomes. If you can afford a $40 blender, Kannaiyan says, you can own the means to clean your air.
JAY KANNAIYAN: If you want something to remove particulate matter, boom - here it is.
MCCARTHY: Severely affected by the pollution, Kannaiyan's wife has escaped Delhi and set up in the seaside state of Goa. Although it has put a strain on his personal life, Kannaiyan remains behind because he is passionate about the work, even if he says the result is not a long-term solution.
KANNAIYAN: Our solution, air purifiers, are actually not even mitigation. It's actually adaptation. We're helping you adapt to the current state of the planet. Right? And my goal would be for Smart Air to be out of business in 20 years. You know, we'll move on to something else.
MCCARTHY: While the business of air purification is on a steep glide up, Delhi's pollution is depressing productivity, closing its schools and encouraging members of its middle class who can leave to go.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.
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