Revathy K, a pulmonologist in Bombay, is generally busy during the mild winter months, but these recent months have been particularly busy. The winds that typically move the city’s construction dust, garbage, and traffic fumes slowed down in November due to an unexpected drop in ocean temperatures. The Bandra-Worli Sea Link, a bridge that connects the city’s core to its northern suburbs, vanished behind a cloud of pollution as the air quality in the city fell to “extremely poor,” briefly passing Delhi, the city with the worst air quality in the entire world.
Many of the patients were wheezing when they arrived, which is something K often notices in patients with asthma or smoking-related illnesses. Between November and January of this year, doctors in Mumbai reported seeing an increase in chronic and persistent coughs in addition to the typical flu season. The individuals in question, according to K, “had never previously experienced any allergy symptoms but are suddenly presenting with symptoms that resemble acute bronchitis” (who, like many Indians, uses an initial as her last name.)
The ongoing catastrophe of India’s air pollution shows no signs of abating. According to a research by the think tank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air published in 2022, “nearly the whole population of India” is exposed to levels of air pollution that are above WHO recommendations. An estimated 1.6 million Indians died from air pollution in 2019.
When efforts to address the issue at its root fail, a new form of inequality is emerging in Indian cities. Richer Indians are paying to breathe free due to the possibly fatal air quality outside, fueling a rising industry for air purifiers that is expected to reach $597 million in sales by 2027. However, most people don’t have the option to pay for breathable air in a nation that is already unequally distributed economically along caste, gender, and religious lines, where 63 percent of people pay for health care out of their own pockets and the top 10 percent of the population own 77 percent of the wealth.
Suryakant Waghmore, professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, claims that “we are normalising a world that hardly values nature and natural rights—basic necessities like clean drinking water, fresh and unpolluted air, and space to walk for pedestrians are neither part of urban planning nor [do they] concern our collective conscience. According to Waghmore, air purifiers clean the air for the affluent while “leaving the public to deteriorate and degenerate.”
In January, Mumbai experienced a cold snap, and residents bundled up with balaclavas and sweaters to be warm. A dusty haze hovered in the air, occasionally coating foliage and building up into mounds on street corners. The city’s poorer citizens turned to dumpster fires, burning bits of wood, rubber, and plastic to stay warm as the roads remained congested with traffic.
Timothy Dmello, a hired dog walker who spends 12 hours a day outside, said that as he travelled up and down Carter Road promenade, a palm-tree-lined stretch bordered by Bollywood superstars’ apartments facing out over the Arabian Sea, he began to notice the worsening air pollution. He claims that you cannot clearly see the horizon.
The flexible hours of Dmello’s profession as a dog walker allowed him to spend more time with his wife, who is receiving kidney dialysis, and their daughter, who is 14 years old. Outside, he is exposed to fumes and particulates, while inside, dust from the outside accumulates. Demello claims that breathing issues do arise occasionally.
He has seen air purifiers in the hospital, but they are out of his price range; more affordable models start at 6,000 rupees ($72). Like the majority of individuals he knows, he was unable to work this winter due to a cough and cold.
Sixty percent of India’s almost 1.3 billion inhabitants live below the World Bank’s median poverty line, or less than $3.10 per day. 18% of the nation’s workforce, excluding farm labourers, is employed outside.
Lung cancer, strokes, and heart disease can all be fatal conditions brought on by prolonged exposure to high ambient PM 2.5 (particulate matter under 2.5 micrometres, which lodges in people’s lungs). 979,900 people died in 2019 from PM 2.5 pollution-related causes, more than doubling over the previous 20 years. Moreover, the Global Air Quality Report 2022 estimates that air pollution costs India $150 billion annually.
The government of India started a National Clean Air Programme in 2019 after discovering that 102 cities there were not adhering to the nation’s air pollution guidelines. Less than five years later, there are already 132 failing cities.
Governments at the federal and state levels have attempted but failed to address the air quality crisis. The Aam Aadmi Party, which governs Delhi, experimented with a “odd-even” programme in 2016 when the city’s air quality significantly declined. Private cars with registration plates that end in odd numbers were allowed to drive on odd days, and those with registration plates that end in even days. According to environmentalists, the amount of air pollution was barely affected. Both Delhi and the neighbouring IT hub of Gurugram have experimented with technology fixes. While Gurugram has installed outdoor air purifiers, the Supreme Court ordered the Delhi government to erect two enormous, 24-meter-high “smog towers” to filter airborne particles in 2021. The Mumbai Municipal Corporation, a civic organisation, announced plans to install 14 outdoor air purifiers throughout the city in February.
Experts, however, think that these actions are fruitless. Ronak Sutaria, the founder of Respirer Life Sciences, an urban data firm that tracks air pollution, claims that purifiers are ineffective. “I believe there is broad scientific community agreement that purifiers do not fix the problem,” I said.
According to Pallav Purohit, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, outdoor purifiers should only be used as a last resort if all other attempts to reduce pollution have been unsuccessful. He claims that using air purifiers only makes sense when more conventional techniques of pollution control are insufficient. The most common flaw with outdoor air filtration systems is their inability to cover a large area, poor performance, and excessive price.
According to Purohit, the air purifiers produce short columns of clean air that are only truly beneficial to those who spend a lot of time nearby them.