What will it take to clean Delhi's air?

In 2019, the average AQI in Delhi was 195. In January, the most polluted month last year, the average was 326. In early November, in many locations in the city, the AQI regularly neared one thousand. Sunil Ghosh / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
07 February, 2020

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. 

But there is ample cause for scepticism about the efficacy of the tower. As a pilot project last February, the Delhi government installed a similar anti-pollution tower under the Indraprastha Marg flyover, near the ITO crossing. The tower was modelled on a skyscraper-sized smog tower in the Chinese city of Xi’an, but there is no publicly available data to determine how effective that project was. Dipankar Saha, a former head of the Central Pollution Control Board’s air laboratory, has said that smog towers are not suitable to Delhi’s meteorological conditions—unlike other cities, Delhi does not have smog, but rather fog combined with a high amount of dust particles. “There is a constant intrusion of dust in Delhi because of various geographical and local factors. How much can a filter suck?” he told the Hindustan Times. The smog tower is said to filter the air within a circumference of 750 metres. With Delhi’s area of 1,484 square kilometres, it would take 33,152 such towers to cover the entire city, at an installation cost of Rs 2,321 crore and an annual operating cost of Rs 1,193 crore.

“This is really not the way to clean up the air,” Anumita Roychowdhury, an air-pollution expert at the research-and-advocacy organisation Centre for Science and Environment, told me. “This is diverting resources from cutting emissions at the sources.” 

This is a real risk. In November 2019, the Supreme Court ordered that the CPCB and the Delhi government draw up a plan to install smog towers throughout the city. On 13 January, the Supreme Court agreed with a Delhi-government proposal to install a smog tower in Connaught Place within the next three months, and with a CPCB proposal to install one at Anand Vihar. It also directed that “anti-smog guns” be installed at construction sites. As a solution to Delhi’s air pollution, this is akin to attempting to solve the climate crisis by sheer force of air-conditioning.

The smog tower exemplifies the short-sightedness that has characterised public debate over Delhi’s pollution woes. Most of the solutions that have been implemented so far—distributing pollution masks, restricting vehicular traffic for a couple of weeks, spraying water on dusty roads—have been reactive, rather than proactive. They have been inadequate to the scale of the problem and have rarely struck at its root causes. As political parties trade charges and make promises during the election campaign, it is worth considering how to tackle one of the capital’s biggest civic issues: what it will take to clean up Delhi’s air.

EVERY YEAR, as winter falls on Delhi, the city’s air thickens. In the night, as low clouds shroud streetlights, one might mistake the opaque air for a cool fog. The reality, however, is more insidious. The air is home to a high concentration of PM2.5, fine particulate matter of 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter that has been found to be most harmful to human health, its small size allowing it to lodge deep into lungs and make its way into the bloodstream. According to the World Health Organisation, a healthy Air Quality Index—a composite indicator of different types of particulate matter—is deemed to be 50. In 2019, the average AQI in Delhi was 195. In January, the most polluted month last year, the average was 326. In early November, in many locations in the city, the AQI regularly neared one thousand. The Delhi government declared an emergency; schools were closed for four days.  

The causes are various: emissions from vehicles, both small-scale and larger industrial manufacturing, wood-fired stoves, brick kilns, Diwali fireworks, coal plants and the crop-burning practices of farmers in neighbouring states all combine with Delhi’s low-lying geography, and the high-pressure weather systems of its winters, to create a choking cloud. The consequences are varied, too: air pollution causes lung and heart disease, makes infants more likely to be admitted to the intensive-care unit and children more likely to be diagnosed with developmental disorders, heightens the likelihood of menstrual-health problems and has a dramatic effect on lifespan. CSE studies have found that air pollution in India has lowered life expectancy in India by an average of 2.6 years and caused thirty percent of all premature deaths. Studies published in The Lancet, a US-based medical journal, found that, in 2017, air pollution caused 1.24 million premature deaths in India, and that a child died of pollution-related causes every three minutes.

The smog tower exemplifies the short-sightedness that has characterised public debate over Delhi’s pollution woes. Rishi Kochhar for The Caravan


Though it is hard to imagine now, not so long ago, Delhi’s air played host to a story of success. Jyoti Pande Lavakare, one of the founding members of the advocacy group Care for Air, was working as a journalist in Delhi in the early 1990s. She remembered that by the time she arrived home from her daily commute, her clothes would be covered in a black layer of soot. But then, she told me, “from 1998 to about 2003, a series of important new rules came into force.”

In 1985, a lawyer named MC Mehta had petitioned the Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue of Delhi’s air pollution. In hearing his public-interest litigation, as well as subsequent petitions, the court began to assume an outsized, quasi-executive role in tackling the problem. It passed orders that produced some of the most significant anti-pollution reforms. In 1998, the Supreme Court ordered that unleaded petrol be introduced and that all of the city’s buses and autorickshaws switch from diesel to compressed natural gas. In 2000, it directed the central government to implement vehicle-emission standards. As the years have passed, the court has continually announced updates to those standards.

The impact of these policies on the city’s air was dramatic. Levels of sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide plummeted between 1997 and 2005, with levels of carbon monoxide falling by more than half. “I still remember the 2004 assembly elections in Delhi, where the political parties were actually fighting with each other to take credit for the cleaner air,” Lavakare said. “It had become an electoral issue.” 

After this temporary victory, the issue slipped out of the public consciousness. The emissions of coal plants and industrial manufacturing were left largely unchecked. In 2009, the governments of Haryana and Punjab both introduced legislation that attempted to preserve groundwater by pushing back the start of rice cultivation from May, when farmers were solely dependent on groundwater for irrigation, to June, closer to the monsoon. An unintended consequence of the move was that it pushed the rice harvest closer to the planting season for wheat, which caused farmers to resort to rapidly burning their fields in preparation—a practice called “stubble-burning.” In early November, the peak season for stubble-burning, the smoke from the neighbouring states settles on Delhi. According to a 2019 study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, daily PM2.5 concentrations in Delhi have been nearly thirty percent higher on average than before the groundwater acts. 

A 2014 WHO report found that Delhi’s air was the worst in the world, with an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 153 micrograms per cubic metre. The CPCB rejected the assessment—“certainly it is not that dangerous as projected,” AB Akolkar, its member secretary at the time, told Reuters. In January 2015, when Barack Obama, then the president of the United States, visited Delhi for three days, a report claimed that the pollution he was exposed to on the trip had likely shaved six hours off his life. In May that year, Gardiner Harris, the South Asia correspondent for the New York Times, wrote a fearful confessional about his decision to move back to the United States due to air pollution’s impact on his child’s health. At home and abroad, Delhi was fast gaining a reputation for its toxic air. 

In January 2016, two professors of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur submitted a report to the Delhi government about the sources of the capital’s air pollution. The report found that the two most consistent contributors were vehicular emissions and “secondary particles,” which are formed in atmospheric reactions between sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides emitted by vehicles, industries, and power plants. That month, Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, launched a new initiative to quell pollution: on alternating days during periods of severe pollution, only cars with license plates ending in odd numbers or in even numbers would be allowed on the roads. 

The efficacy of the odd-even scheme has long been under question. It is only implemented during periods of extreme pollution, for around two weeks at a time, and only applies to four-wheeled, privately-owned cars, which make up only about thirty percent of Delhi’s vehicular traffic. Women driving alone are exempted from the restrictions, a move which Kejriwal justified as a matter of safety but which has also led families with two cars to skirt around the policy’s inconveniences by strategically alternating drivers. Others simply alternate license plates. An IIT Delhi study found that the first iteration of the odd-even scheme reduced PM2.5 concentration by only two to three percent. 

In December 2015, the National Green Tribunal banned stubble-burning in Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. As punishment for defying the ban, landowners with less than two acres of land would be fined Rs 2,500 per infringement; those with two to five acres of land would pay Rs 5,000; and those with more than five acres would pay Rs 15,000. The burning continued, with farmers continuing to argue that clearing their fields without burning was prohibitively expensive without government support. Some support came, after the NGT ordered the state governments, in 2017, to provide farmers with subsidised machinery to clear their fields. According to the central government’s response to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha, on 21 June 2019, the centre had released Rs 1,152 crore to the states for the subsidies.

However, the effects of these efforts have been difficult to discern. On 4 November, the central government informed the Supreme Court that while stubble-burning was down seventeen percent in Haryana, it was up seven percent in Punjab. It told the Rajya Sabha, on 29 November, that it had formed a committee to formulate a long-term solution. For now, the issue persists.

AS THE WORST of the autumn’s pollution settled on the city last year, international media outlets covered the crisis with horrified interest. “Delhi’s air as bad as smoking 50 cigarettes,” one Vox article claimed. The New York Times published an animated visualisation of the particulate matter in a few cities—Delhi, Beijing and San Francisco—in which Delhi’s particulates grew into fat, black and grey dots that filled the user’s screen. By now, Delhi’s air has become a global source of concern, surpassing Beijing as international shorthand for unbreathable air. 

Meanwhile, in Delhi, as it had for the last few years, the pollution brought with it political conflict. In September, the Aam Aadmi Party released a newspaper advertisement boasting that Delhi’s pollution had been reduced by a quarter in the last two years. PM2.5 concentration, the advertisement said, had declined from an average of 154 micrograms per cubic metre in 2012–14 to an average of 115 micrograms per cubic metre in 2016–18. The advertisement listed a set of AAP policies under the heading “What Brought Down Pollution?” including improved electricity supply, fines on construction sites in violation of dust-control norms, closure of two thermal power plants and an increase in green cover. But then, under those policies, the advertisement ominously stated: “…but Stubble Burning will increase Pollution Levels in November.”

An analysis by Scroll found that the claim of a 25-percent decrease was exaggerated. The AAP was relying on an analysis published by the CSE, which noted that there were significant data gaps in the figures submitted to parliament. The analysis noted that annual averages calculated by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee found a fifteen-percent reduction in PM2.5 levels. A separate analysis, by Greenpeace India, argued that “data from all real time air quality monitoring stations collectively shows a significant reduction in PM10, but no noticeable reduction in levels of PM2.5 … Satellite data shows no statistically significant reduction in PM2.5 levels over the period from 2013 to 2018 and only shows slight reductions in later part of 2018 compared to the past 3 years.” 

On 18 October, the CPCB held a press conference to announce that local sources in Delhi, rather than stubble burning in BJP-controlled Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, were causing pollution. Stubble-burning, the CPCB said, was only contributing to seven percent of the total emissions. “Major internal sources of pollution are road dust, vehicular emission, biomass burning and industrial emissions,” Prashant Gargava, the CPCB member secretary, said

Kejriwal responded with frustration. “By totally ignoring the role of stubble-burning in the spike in air pollution in the capital, the CPCB is giving a clean chit to neighbouring states, despite their utter failure in ending the practice of stubble-burning,” he said. “There appeared to be no other motive of today's press conference but to defend state governments of neighbouring states and blame the people of Delhi to score political points against AAP.” On 13 November, Gargava contradicted his earlier statement, claiming that crop residue had contributed nearly half of Delhi’s particulate matter. 

Six days later, the Lok Sabha held its first debate on the issue of air pollution. Gautam Gambhir criticised the AAP and the odd-even policy. Delhi needed “long-term, sustainable solutions,” he said, not “knee-jerk reactions.” The debate quickly descended into mudslinging and personal attacks. After chastising the AAP for not doing enough about air pollution while overspending on advertisements boasting about clean air, the BJP MP Pravesh Verma referenced Kejriwal’s chronic cough, which once led him to undergo naturopathic treatment in Bangalore. “Earlier the CM used to cough,” Verma said. “Now the entire city and members of the House are coughing.” 

“Will making personal attacks on CM Kejriwal and his health improve Delhi’s air?” the AAP Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh asked after the debate. “The centre’s own report says that stubble-burning had up to forty-six percent contribution to Delhi’s toxic air this season. Why isn’t any BJP MP talking about that?”

In the run-up to the assembly election, the competing parties in Delhi have continued to leverage the issue of air pollution for political gain. In its “guarantee card,” which lists ten promises for its next term, the AAP promises to reduce pollution by a third within the next five years. Kejriwal has been quick to brag about the AAP’s various attempts at mitigating the sources and effects of pollution. In addition to odd-even, the Delhi government has handed out 5 million anti-pollution masks and taken to spraying water on public roads to bring down dust. During Diwali, the AAP organised a four-day laser show in the hope of dissuading people from setting off fireworks.

Analysis by Scroll and Greenpeace India found that the AAP's claim of a 25-percent reduction in air pollution was exaggerated.

“It will be our priority to tackle water and air pollution,” Nitin Gadkari, the union minister for road transport and highways, said while presenting the BJP’s election manifesto. Gadkari also claimed that his department’s construction of ring roads around Delhi has led to a decrease in vehicular emissions. “This year pollution in Delhi reduced following completion of eastern and western peripheral highways,” he added

Harkening back to its past victories, the Congress has placed a heavy emphasis on environmental issues in its manifesto. “Delhi was made India’s first CNG driven city by the INC,” the Congress manifesto states. “We will make Delhi India’s first electric vehicle city.” Along with a plan to establish an electric-vehicle initiative, the party pledges to spend 25 percent of the budget on fighting pollution, improving public transit and making the Delhi metro more affordable. The manifesto also includes a call to appoint schoolchildren as “environmental ambassadors,” implement a dust-management plan and work with neighbouring states to fund projects to harness stubble-burning into electricity generation. 

“Congress works, always,” Naresh Kumar, who is coordinating social-media outreach for the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, told me. “We built the highways and the flyovers. We brought the computer to India. We brought CNG to Delhi to reduce pollution.” 

“We will eliminate pollution,” he said. 

SANTOSH HARISH, an air-pollution researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, is not impressed. He told me that he was grateful for the political attention that air pollution was receiving, but dissatisfied with the way that it was being discussed—the perpetual bickering between the AAP and the BJP over the sources of air pollution had distorted the public perception of the issue. In reality, he said, it is neither vehicular emissions nor stubble-burning that contributes the vast majority of Delhi’s air pollution. “We need to not be fixated on any one source, be it vehicles or stubble burning, but think of it as a multi-source problem that needs us to tackle it at these different sources in parallel.” 

Delhi’s air pollution can be attributed to four main sources: industry and power plants, transport, biomass and waste-burning, and dust. Different studies identify different proportions from each source, and different concentrations in each season. However, by analysing four “source-apportionment” studies—a 2011 study by the CPCB, a 2013 study by the advocacy group Urban Emissions, a 2015 IIT Delhi study and a 2018 study by The Energy and Resources Institute and the Automotive Research Association of India—the CPR concluded that each source contributes about a quarter of the pollution, give or take ten percent. There were a few outliers: one study calculated industrial emissions to be over forty percent, one found biomass to contribute a little under forty percent, and two of the studies said that dust only contributed around ten percent, though the numbers spike in the summer. 

It is notoriously difficult to determine the proportionate contributions of different sources of air pollution in India. There are two main strategies to do so: bottom-up, and top-down. In a bottom-up study, the emissions are measured at a sampling of representative sources. In a top-down study, a representative sample of air pollution is gathered, and its sources are determined through chemical examination of its composition. Data to conduct such studies, however, is difficult to acquire. Monitoring data about air quality is collected less regularly and widely in India than it is in other countries, and the data that is collected is often not available to the public. But Harish said that dwelling on these difficulties is not the most productive use of time. Though the data is important, it has already been solidly established that all four sources are major contributors and that all four need to be addressed. 

In January 2017, following Supreme Court orders in the Mehta case, the union environment ministry announced its Graded Response Action Plan, a set of emergency measures to take when Delhi’s air quality worsened. In “moderate poor” conditions, a ban on firecrackers is enforced and the public is notified about pollution via social media; in “very poor” conditions, parking fees are hiked and diesel generator use is banned; in “severe” conditions, brick kilns and stone crushers are closed; and in “emergency” conditions, the odd-even scheme is implemented. But significant and long-lasting impact on air pollution requires a broad set of year-round policies directed at lessening emissions at their source, pegged to incremental, achievable goals.

In October 2018, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority—a Supreme Court-mandated monitoring committee, known as the EPCA—in collaboration with the governments of Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, introduced a Comprehensive Action Plan to tackle air pollution in the National Capital Region, pursuant to another Supreme Court order. The plan included a long list of desired actions, from better monitoring to construction of peripheral highways, stricter regulations on industrial emissions and ensuring proper disposal of waste at construction sites to minimise dust. It is an ambitious document, encompassing a huge swath of policies across a variety of governmental departments. The trouble with the CAP, Harish said, “is that it is a laundry list of various actions that could be taken. So it becomes more aspirational than something that is strategic in nature.”  

Last January, the union environment ministry launched the National Clean Air Programme. It was modelled on the Delhi CAP, but spread to cities across the country and aimed to reduce pollution by twenty to thirty percent over the course of five years. According to Harish, the NCAP is a good first step, but not a long-term solution. It has the same problems as the Delhi CAP: it focusses more on aspirational goals than on strategic, practicable initiatives with particular institutions being held to account. An independent study—published by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, an Austrian research organisation, and the Delhi-based NGO Council on Energy, Environment, and Water—said that the NCAP needs to be backed by a legal mandate, to ensure successful ground-level implementation of emission-control measures, and scaled up significantly to ensure that economic growth does not conflict with air-quality standards. 

The plan is also confined to cities. Air pollution knows no borders, which is why Harish and other advocates emphasised the need for a coordinated, region-level solution. In addition, the funding allocated is relatively modest. In 2019–20, Rs 406 crore for the NCAP was spread across 102 cities. The 28 most severely impacted cities received Rs 10 crore for two years.

Critics have taken issue with the Supreme Court’s role in pollution control. The journalist Maneesh Chhibber wrote an op-ed in The Print about the outsized role the court plays, arguing that the seasonal cycle of finger-wagging by the Supreme Court simply serves as a distraction from more long-lasting reforms.

A more effective strategy, Harish said, would be to focus on specific agencies—the state and central pollution-control boards—that could carry out a more feasible set of reforms. “The pollution-control boards are the frontline agencies to tackle air pollution,” he told me. “They have responsibility in terms of planning, in terms of coordinating between other government agencies, and they have a direct mandate. They are understaffed; they are under-resourced. They don’t have the kind of regulatory teeth that they need to have to perform their job.” He added that greater transparency about the boards’ functioning “is something that could be done very quickly and with very little cost.”

I asked Harish if there were any specific policies that he thought the Delhi government should implement. “Buses,” he responded quickly, citing an estimate that a city of Delhi’s size should be serviced by about fifteen thousand buses. Currently, the city only has 5,789 buses in operation. Its much heralded metro system saw a reduction in passengers following a 2017 fare hike; a CSE study found that the average Delhi commuter spends 14 percent of their income on metro rides. A broader investment in affordable public transit would go a long way to reduce pollution.

BUT THE LEAST MENTIONED, and most persistent, causes of pollution are industrial emissions and coal-fuelled power plants. In 2015, the AAP government suspended operations at the Rajghat coal plant, citing concerns about pollution and the energy efficiency of the ageing facility. The same year, a CSE study deemed another of Delhi’s coal plants, in Badarpur, vastly inefficient and “one of the most polluting in the country.” In May 2017, the EPCA ordered the closure of the plant within a year. Last July, the Delhi cabinet decided to convert the Rajghat plant into a solar park.

In 2015, the union environment ministry issued a revised set of standards for coal-based power plants under the Environmental Protection Act, with the aim of drastically cutting sulphur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, mercury, PM2.5 and PM10 emissions. All of the coal-based power plants across the country were requested to install mechanisms to limit emissions: electrostatic precipitators, flue-gas desulphurisation technologies and modified burner designs to lower nitrogen-oxide emissions. The initial deadline for power plants to implement these changes was 7 December 2017. 

None of the power plants had complied with the new regulations by the deadline. The environment ministry filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court, as part of the Mehta case, saying that it was willing to extend the deadline. Although the power ministry proposed an extension to 2024, the environment ministry pushed back and prepared a system of staggered deadlines for the 440 power plants—which produce four-fifths of India’s electricity—stretching from 2019 to 2022. The 11 coal-based plants in the NCR were given 18 months to comply, given the severity of Delhi’s pollution.

Most of the solutions that have been implemented so far—distributing pollution masks, restricting vehicular traffic for a couple of weeks, spraying water on dusty roads—have been reactive, rather than proactive. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

But as 2019 drew to a close, only one, the Mahatma Gandhi Thermal Power Plant, had installed the required mechanism. One other plant, at Rajpura, had closed down. The other nine continue to spew toxic emissions into the atmosphere. In January 2020, Adani Power and the National Thermal Power Corporation, two of the largest energy companies in India, requested further extensions. Citing a “change of ownership,” Adani requested its deadline be extended to March 2023. Technically, at present, all of the noncompliant plants are operating illegally. The environment ministry or the CPCB could shut down these plants, but this is unlikely due to the public and industry blowback that would ensue. “The CPCB seems to have given them oral permission to keep operating,” Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, told me. “Because they will most likely be given another extension.” 

The Delhi government has been largely silent on the issue. “Until very recently, the Delhi government didn’t say anything about these power plants,” Dahiya said. “Now I’m not sure if that’s because of the force or power of the power lobby, or because the Delhi government was not really aware of what’s been happening.” 

Although the noncompliance of coal plants has received some media attention, Dahiya added, the media “also falls into that narrative that is made by the big polluters and the political parties, which doesn’t always focus on the real solutions but rather focuses on temporary or false solutions, or very inadequate or small solutions. Odd-even was one scheme, stubble-burning was another. Both of them are required, we need to take action on this, but the big polluters should not hide behind these millions of poor farmers or the public.” 

“And now we’ve seen another level of craziness with these smog towers, which are not at all solutions,” he went on. “We can install an air purifier in a hospital, maybe in a school, those kind of sensitive areas. But they cannot replicate it on a city scale, because of the amount of money that goes into that. Because once pollution is out in an area, it is very hard to suck it back.”

On the evening of 5 February, just three days before the Delhi election, the sky was deceptively blue. The AQI was at 319—“very poor”—but at Central Market, the smog tower was notably silent. Two middle-aged men stood beside it, looking bemused.

One of the men, Bhuvesh Kumar, owns the building next to the tower. “It’s not working for, say, last ten days,” he told me. “There’s no electricity connection here right now, so they have applied for a new connection.” He did not know how long it would take for the tower to be functional. “They say it will take some days.”

His friend, Vijay Bajaj, who lives nearby, was sceptical. “They are wasting money in the name of that election and all,” he said. “It is not going to work for even a single day, and that same thing happened after four days—after four days, it stopped working.” He said that even when it was functioning, the tower’s display showed an AQI of over a thousand. “I was laughing. Even in other parts of Delhi, they were showing three hundred or something. It’s totally rubbish.”