New Delhi’s Press Enclave Road represents the city’s complex mix of communities like no other: One side boasts an enormous modern shopping mall featuring the Hard Rock Cafe and Zara; the other, a string of eateries advertising Afghan rice dishes and chemist signs in Dari, one of Afghanistan’s main languages.
It is a sign of the impact of the city’s newest migrant community one block away from one of Delhi’s largest private hospitals, Max. The hospital, like others in the capital, is finding a new market in medical tourism from the war-torn neighbor.
The city already has a sizeable Afghan community – long-term residents, refugees, students – but over the past five years a steady trickle of visitors seeking healthcare has grown into a flood. Now, some large hospitals catering to foreign patients are finding that up to a third of them are from Afghanistan.
Some are catering almost exclusively to Afghans, while others are working to make their services more accessible to the community. The colossal Apollo Hospital in the city’s southwest has translators on staff, a website in Dari, and even a separate payment desk for Afghans.
"All the good doctors in Afghanistan have migrated, nobody wants to invest there," says Dheerendra Singh Tomar, an Indian who runs a private hospital in Delhi catering to patients from Afghanistan and other developing countries. "Medical tourism from Afghanistan is bringing a lot of money to India.”
There are no firm figures on the numbers of Afghans travelling to India for medical treatment, but the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi estimates that up to 100 Afghans arrive in New Delhi each day during the winter high season for treatment: Mostly to treat infertility issues or cancer.
One of these is Ziyarmal Arass, who came to the city a year ago for in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment along with his wife, and stayed on for the recent birth of his baby girl. “India is a good place for this, it’s not as expensive as other countries and Pakistan’s health care is not good,” says the 25-year-old Kabul businessman.
“I was nervous about coming to Delhi but when I arrived I found many other Afghans in my neighborhood, good food and weather.”
With the cost of IVF treatment in an upscale hospital costing as much as $3,000, it is clearly only a real option for Afghanistan’s upper income earners. The per capital GDP in Afghanistan is $589 compared with India’s $1,514.
Still, four airlines now provide four or five flights daily between Afghanistan and the Indian capital, up from zero a decade ago. The Afghan embassy says that while most Afghans still travel to Pakistan for their health needs, India is becoming increasingly attractive for those who can afford it.
"India is close by, you can fly from Kabul in just over an hour," says Mr. Tomar. There are other countries offering low-cost medical care, such as Thailand, but India offers some degree of relate-ability for Afghans: There are similarities when it comes to food, clothing, and appearance.
Despite being one of the richest cities in South Asia, New Delhi is still an affordable option for Afghans. In Lajpat Nagar, a ramshackle neighborhood popular with Afghan refugees, a visitor and his family can rent a room for 900 rupees per day, or almost $17. And although Afghanistan is no Saudi Arabia, some here have high hopes for the industry.
"This has only just begun, this industry is going to grow by 20 percent each year," says Tomar. "That's huge."