Following Mumbai’s air quality crisis this winter, critics accused the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board of moving air quality sensors to “cleaner” parts of the city.
Meanwhile, India’s wealthier residents have taken matters into their own hands. Air purifier brands have become a common topic of conversation among middle-class residents. People who can afford to do so move from air-purified homes (where each room often has its own purifier) to air-purified shops and malls, driven in air-purified cars. Brands have enlisted cricket stars and Bollywood celebritiesadvertising in English-language newspapers, on social media, and on billboards.
If the combination of advertisements and news coverage is to be believed, breathing air in India’s capital is equivalent to 50 cigarettes a day during Diwali, a Hindu festival where many people burst firecrackers, and 10 cigarettes a day during the winter. For an Indian Independence Day advertSharp suggests “Impurities Quit India,” referring to the “Quit India” movement from India’s freedom struggle. News articles meet every spike in poor air quality with air purifier advice: “Delhi air quality turns severe: 5 Air purifiers that will help you breathe clean air,” reads one; “Planning To Buy An Air Purifier Amid Falling AQI? Know the Costs, Other Factors” reads another.
Deekshith Vara Prasad, founder and CEO of Indian-made air purifier AirOK Technologies, says his company’s sales have grown 18 percent since 2018. (AirOK Technologies’ air purifiers are largely used in hospitals and offices.)
Prasad says surging demand has led to substandard products in the market. To work on the air in India’s cities, purifiers need to filter out fine particulate matter, fungus, bacteria, viruses, and toxic gasses like sulfur and nitrous oxides. There are “hundreds” of pollutants, he says. “If I remove two pollutants, I can claim I ‘remove pollutants.’”
The borders of private spaces, like offices and, increasingly, hotels—which sometimes market themselves based on their air purification—are a stark illustration of the unequal access to clean air. Door attendants, valets, bellhops, and security guards working the entrances and exits to these buildings don’t breathe the purified air available to those inside.
Waghmore says this division intersects with India’s social inequalities around status and caste and that air purifiers only consolidate the ideology of “purity” as something that is central to the lives of dominant caste.
Such inequality has severe consequences, as those from disadvantaged castes already face considerable barriers in accessing health care.
Waghmore says the heightened sense of privileged individualism—where the rich have the means to fend for themselves—“has the worst consequences in poor countries, where governments are yet to invest morally and economically in public infrastructure and transport to counter environmental degradation.”
K, who regularly treats those suffering from India’s air pollution inequality, puts it more succinctly. “I don’t think people should live with this,” she say, adding that everyone needs to take demand solutions. “If you don’t get something as basic as fresh air, then what’s the point of living in our country?”