Air bubbles in Delhi’s dystopia

With air pollution a seasonal occurrence in north India every winter, particularly in the National Capital Region, those who can afford to install ever more sophisticated air filtration systems are doing so in homes, office spaces, schools, gyms and hotels. Nikhil M. Babu and Jacob Koshy report on the technologies which provide a temporary respite for a few and the class stratification that is becoming all the more evident

Updated - November 19, 2022 12:45 pm IST

Published - November 19, 2022 03:15 am IST

An air purification system installed at The Ardee School in New Delhi.

An air purification system installed at The Ardee School in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

On a chilly November morning, four-year-old Tejaswini Singh got down from her father’s scooter and walked towards the metal gate of the government school in Aliganj where she studies. Singh, who was wearing a grey skirt and pink shirt but no mask, stopped to wave goodbye before she disappeared behind the gate. “Now the air quality is better,” said her father, Bimal Kumar, while explaining why his daughter was not wearing a mask despite the air quality being ‘very poor’ in Delhi. “But I was relieved when the school closed earlier this week due to severe air pollution.” When asked if there were solutions for clean air at school, Kumar, 59, shook his head.

About 9 km away, a grey Audi pulled up outside Gate 1 of The Ardee School, a private educational institution. In the central courtyard of the school, past the many security guards and the reception with glass doors, is a 12-foot-high screen displaying the indoor and outdoor Air Quality Index (AQI): 13 and 139, respectively. “We use an advanced air purification system, which is installed on the terrace of the building. It pumps in purified air through a metal duct (from the dome of the building) to each floor of the school,” a spokesperson of the school said. The system was installed in 2021.

Vardan Chitkara, a Class 12 student of the school, said his 10-year-old brother, who is asthmatic, studies in the same school. He said the family has one air purifier at home, but it was nothing compared to the system in school. “On highly polluted days, my brother finds it easier to breathe in school than at home,” Chitkara said.

Like The Ardee School, many private schools in Delhi use different forms of air purification systems to shield students from the toxic air outside. In these schools, the annual tuition fee for a Class 10 student is somewhere between ₹7 lakh and ₹13 lakh or more. On hearing that private schools have centralised air purification systems or individual air purifiers while government schools, such as the one Singh attends, have no such systems, Kumar said it is naturally a problem. “But what can we do? This is how it will always be.”

Paying a premium for clean air

Many such centralised clean air solutions have come up across the National Capital Region (NCR), where, every year, like clockwork, pollution spikes with the onset of winter. Over the years, increasing public concern over the air pollution crisis has pushed the Centre and the States surrounding Delhi to initiate a spate of legislative and policy measures. One of them is a Supreme Court-mandated Graded Response Action Plan, which classifies air quality, via an index, into four categories of toxicity: moderate to poor (201-300); very poor (301-400); severe (401-450), severe+ or emergency (450+). When the level of pollution worsens, government actions tend to become more stringent. These range from restrictions on movements of transport trucks to stopping construction activity, closing schools and placing curbs on passenger vehicles.

However, given that the sources of pollution are varied, the causes of bad air are not easily controlled. With the remedial measures failing to deliver a measurable improvement in air quality, some people in the city are attempting to insulate themselves from the pollution. While most people continue to breathe the foul air, those who have the resources have started to withdraw into ‘air bubbles’. Sanitised bubbles, promising high quality air quality, are created by air-filtration systems installed in schools, clubs, gyms, office spaces, farmhouses, and flats. These systems cost anywhere between ₹1 and ₹1.6 lakh a room, are thus accessible only to the “super-rich”. Companies which install these systems are seeing a steady growth in business.

Earlier this year, Ahuja Residency, a prominent builder in the NCR, launched a four-star boutique hotel in Gurugram that ticks every box of what constitutes a ‘green building’. The hotel has a charging station for vehicles, a 33kVA solar photovoltaic and solar water heating system, energy-efficient lighting, a food waste composting machine installed for zero solid waste discharge, and rainwater harvesting. Large, flat-screen panels, displaying the levels of a range of pollutants, have been mounted on the sleek walls of the lobby. According to the display, the particulate matter and chemical concentrations are lower than the outside air at the nearby Aravali Biodiversity Park.

“We wanted to provide the best quality of air that we possibly could in this area,” Jaideep Ahuja, MD and CEO, is heard saying in a promotional video. In the NCR, people are willing to pay a premium for clean air, said Ahuja. “In fact, the air quality we offer is our biggest selling point. That is why we have named the hotel AIR.”

‘Not exactly a mass solution’

Air filtration systems weave the ultimate bubble by sealing people off from the outside air and delivering a constant supply of oxygenated air. As opening windows — the traditional, free facilitators of fresh air — isn’t always an option, companies such as BreatheEasy draw outside air via ducts by drilling a hole in the wall. This air is scrubbed clean of particulate matter, chemical reactants in the air, ozone, and several other chemicals via a filtration system. However, what still remains is carbon dioxide, from the people in the room. “Air that is brought in and cleaned by the system exerts a positive pressure and forces out stale air from under the doorways or other openings,” said Barun Aggarwal, MD and CEO, BreatheEasy. “Most air purifiers only focus on particulate matter, but concentrations of carbon dioxide over 1,000 ppm (parts per million) are also harmful for health. In 10 years, I’ve only sold a few thousand systems. So, this is not exactly a mass solution,” he said.

There are other problems too. Aggarwal recounted an experience with an installation at the residence of an industrialist. The AQI reading, which generally showed single digits, suddenly started to display unusually high readings one day. Aggarwal’s technicians scanned every nook and corner and sat in the house for hours with sensors in every room. A few days later, they found the source: an insecticide which was being sprayed around the house to kill mosquitoes.

No home-filtration system can trap the chemicals in insecticides rapidly enough. There are filters to trap a wide variety of chemicals, but these increase costs and need to be replaced frequently and maintained, said Aggarwal. “We addressed the problem by changing the chemical spray. But even if you stay in the greenest localities, outside air is still bad.”

On November 3, when the air quality of Delhi was ‘severe’, an Instagram post by BoulderBox, an indoor rock-climbing gym in south Delhi, asked cheekily: “Is Delhi taking your breath away?” This post was juxtaposed with a picture of a reading from an AQI monitor inside the gym, displaying an ‘89’, even as the rest of Delhi tried to battle a ‘378’. This gym, too, boasts of a centralised filtration system. “We organise several birthday parties for children here. Clean air inside the gym is one of our selling points, particularly during winters,” an employee said.

A practice session at BoulderBox, New Delhi.

A practice session at BoulderBox, New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

For Sudhir Pawar, 39, who has been climbing for more than five years, having an indoor gym with clean air helps. “Earlier I used to climb at IMF (Indian Mountaineering Foundation), an outdoor facility. But here, the facilities are better. Since there is air conditioning and clean air, I can climb for six hours while I used to be completely exhausted in just three hours at the IMF,” he said. By his estimate, 20-30 fellow climbers at the IMF have moved to BoulderBox.

Yaduraj Bhageria, co-founder of BoulderBox, said the centre has tie-ups with two embassy schools. Many students whose parents work in embassies use this gym. “In India, polluted air has been normalised to a great extent. But for people who work in embassies, it is a big issue. So, clean air is a selling point with them,” he said.

Business has been rising 40% to 50% annually for Jai Dhar Gupta, founder of Nirvana Being, which installed the system at The Ardee School. Gupta’s company uses electronic air cleaners, each of which has a life of about 10 years, longer than the HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters used in home air purifiers. As they cannot be cleaned and must be replaced every few years, home air purifiers have shorter shelf lives. Many of Gupta’s clients have children or older relatives with respiratory illnesses. “The business has grown as awareness about health and well-being has increased,” he said.

But experts say that creating air bubbles will not solve the problem. “You cannot stay in such bubbles,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director of Research and Advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment. “Also, only the rich can afford it. The solution has to be equitable, inclusive, and for everyone.”

The most common shield

While air filtration systems may be the apex insulators, their prohibitive costs make them affordable only to a fraction of the people. The more common shield that Delhiites, and generally residents in cities across north India, use are air purifiers. These are compact, stand-alone boxes which contain stacks of filters that trap particulate matter and, depending on their cost, more chemical toxins, in the room where they are placed. Air purifiers can suck in particulate matter within a room, but they don’t insulate people against the air that comes in from outside. This is why the air in the room isn’t “fresh” and leads to rising levels of carbon dioxide, said Aggarwal. Starting at ₹10,000, air purifiers can cost up to ₹80,000 depending on the brand and the pollutants they can capture. Though cheaper than filtration systems, air purifiers are not also affordable to the vast majority.

On grey, windless days when the air quality is ‘very poor’ or ‘severe’, air purifiers offer comforting double-digit readings and a temporary reprieve from the outside. These purifiers are supplied by a growing list of consumer electronic goods companies. As per a 2021 estimate by BlueWeave Consulting, the India air purifier market was worth $74.8 million in 2020 and is projected to reach $565.7 million by 2027. BlueWeave Consulting attributes this to the “increasing prevalence of respiratory issues, surging disposable income, and growing urban population.”

However, experts say this solution is quixotic and the problem can be fixed only through consistent public action addressing the sources of pollution. “Some, who have vulnerable people at home, have spent lakhs cleaning up a large indoor space. Few people are doing it scientifically and following through on the significant engineering demands this entails. The average person is just plonking a purifier and saying, ‘This is done,’” said Karthik Ganesan of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

Whether purifiers are successful in fully decontaminating spaces is debatable. And even if they are, they offer limited reprieve. “Even if you install these sophisticated systems, you can stay indoors for 8-10 hours a day. But what if you have children who need to play? Whichever way you slice and dice the data on the steps taken to cut pollution at source, the last few years suggest that air quality improvement is, at best, stagnant,” Ganesan said.

Air purifiers have now made their way even into cars. Automobile makers such as Hyundai, MG and Kia provide factory-fitted air purification systems in their vehicles, thus integrating commutes, a major source of exposure to polluted air, into the air bubble experience. And to ensure that children are not deprived of the benefits of playing outside, some private schools also have play areas for children with a dedicated purification system.

Also read | While spotlight’s on Delhi, smaller northern towns often fare worse in air quality

While relatively inexpensive water filters can insulate large sections of the population from impure water, bad air affects people across class. “Look at the hospital emergency rooms in winter and the profile of the people complaining about asthma and respiratory diseases,” said Aarti Khosla, Director, Climate Trends. Khosla described a research experiment undertaken some years ago in Delhi where two schoolchildren — one rich and the other middle class — carried an air quality monitor to gauge their levels of average exposure through the day. “Overall, there wasn’t a significant difference.”

However, Divya Vaid, Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, warned that this fight for clean air, which has become a resource, will accentuate the class divide. “There is research that shows that air pollution is more in places in Delhi where the population density is higher and where mostly people from lower economic strata live. The same goes for water. A slum won’t have clean water. These air bubbles will deepen this class divide.”

Vaid’s home has air purifiers, her child’s school has air purifiers, but her office does not. “So, you could say I don’t have a ‘full bubble’. But some people do have a ‘full bubble’. It is dystopian, isn’t it?”

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