AT THE BUSTLING CENTRAL MARKET in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, a large metal cylinder stood on a strip of grass. It was twenty feet tall, and painted to resemble the Indian tricolour. At the top, the word shuddh—pure—was written in black letters. The purpose of the new monolith could have appeared unclear, but the boxy grates jutting out from its sides revealed its function. The tube is a “smog tower” and was installed, in early January, with the purported aim of fighting air pollution. It operates just as an indoor air purifier would, sucking in the surrounding air and filtering it.
At his office in the back of his shop, just across the street from the tower, Ashwani Marwah, joint secretary of the Traders’ Association, Lajpat Nagar, told me how the smog tower came to be. The TALN had participated in a variety of civic projects in the past: they installed CCTV cameras throughout the market and run a free e-rickshaw service for its patrons. So when the idea of installing an air-filtration system came up during a meeting with representatives of Gautam Gambhir, the retired cricketer and Bharatiya Janata Party MP from East Delhi, the project seemed like a natural fit. The Gautam Gambhir Foundation, Gambhir’s independent NGO, would pay for the setup—around seven lakh rupees—while the TALN would shoulder the cost of upkeep and maintenance—around thirty thousand rupees a month. Both organisations would gain positive publicity and, hopefully, do their part to clean up one small section of Delhi’s notoriously polluted air. From the idea’s inception, in November, the turnaround was quick. By 3 January, a little over a month before the Delhi assembly election on 8 February, the tower was up and running.
The timing seemed suspiciously convenient. In his office above his spectacle shop next door, I asked Sanjeev Madan, the TALN president, about whether the smog tower might afford political benefits to Gambhir and the BJP in the upcoming Delhi elections. “Yes!” he told me. “It should.” It was not a political project, he said, but if Gambhir accrued some political capital along the way, so be it. He had earned it.