What will it take to clean Delhi's air?

07 February 2020
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
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

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.” 

Lewis Page is a Luce Scholar at The Caravan.

Keywords: Delhi Elections 2020 AAP delhi air pollution Supreme Court Gautam Gambhir odd-even power plant Delhi Metro bus Arvind Kejriwal
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