Just how bad is Delhi’s pollution? People are driving through smog to grab time in an oxygen chamber

Plants and air-purifiers can only provide temporary respite. Experts say the real crisis began when Delhi’s Ridge was destroyed.

A few steps away from the congested HUDA metro station in Gurugram lies an escape from the gas-chamber of the Northern Capital Region. An artificially created green zone called O2 Chamber offers an artificial and private sanctuary for breathless city-dwellers to breathe fresh and clean air.

Literally an oasis in a region choked with smog, the enclosed area and garden space sprawled over an extensive 13,000 square feet works on a powerful synergy of nature and technology. In the enclosure, hundreds of NASA-approved air-purifying plants absorb harmful gases such as methane, carbon dioxide, xylene, benzene, releasing oxygen. Mechanical air purifiers in the room remove hydrogen from viruses, bacteria and allergens.

Initiated by the Delhi Metro Rail Cooperation, the project is the brainchild of NCR-based company Nurturing Green, a pioneer in green gifting that specialises in green décor and landscaping services. The chamber has a nursery along with a greenhouse, where visitors can buy exotic varieties of indoor and outdoor air-purifying plants like aloe vera, areca palm and sansivieria. Amardeep Singh, who manages O2, said that a minimum of two such plants are required per person, to clean the air one breathes in an average-sized room.

On a weekday, several NCR residents, desperate for fresh air, were beating traffic to come to the chamber. Animesh Srivastava, an advertising professional who lives in Gurugram’s Sector 82, was pleasantly surprised to read a low AQI PM2.5 reading of 8.3 at the oxygen chamber. “It’s a great place to meditate or practice yoga,” he said. “I never even knew there were such things as air-purifying plants. It’s a great concept. We badly need something like this at such a time.”

An interior designer, Vikas Garg, drove nearly 40 km from his home in Sector 23 of Faridabad when he heard about the oxygen chamber from his wife. “It is worth the distance,” he said. “You feel refreshed the minute you come here. The best part is that you get to see various garden themes and can choose the one you want for your home.”

While it costs nothing for visitors to inhale fresh air at the chamber, driving through a polluted city to get to the chamber defeats the purpose. Kailash Pathak, who commutes daily from Delhi to his office in Gurugram, said: “Wading through the city’s toxic pollution in order to reach somewhere where you can beat it is a bit of an oxymoron. Even if one does go, how long can you stay holed up in such a place – or at home with a purifier on? Sooner or later, one has to go outdoors and face the reality.”

The statistics are stark. The Indian Medical Association has stated that the national capital is in a state of “public health emergency”. The air quality index is severe with high particulate matter in several places. A recent report in The Lancet medical journal stated that pollution had claimed as many as 2.5 million lives in India in 2015, the highest anywhere in the world.

Enterprises like the O2 Chamber are cashing in. Residential societies, homes, hotels, district centres, offices, schools and recreational parks are all looking to build dedicated oxygen rooms. According to Nurturing Green, there are plans to open six more oxygen chambers at various metro stations in the city. However at best, the chambers are a temporary solution.

Shubham Mishra, an urban planner based in Delhi, said: “We have come to a situation where the natural oxygen chambers of our cities have been destroyed and are getting replaced with some logic-defying resolutions. So we first destroy the Ridge [a green belt that once functioned as the capital’s lungs, protecting it from the hot desert winds of Rajasthan], encroach upon the Aravallis for real estate, build glass buildings and then ‘go green’ with such artificial solutions.”

Mishra believes that the native flora of metropolitan cities is increasingly being replaced by alien features that are more or less ornamental in nature. As to whether massive oxygen chambers of this kind are practical in the long run, he said: “How many such massive structures can cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Gurugram and Bengaluru provide? How are they going to be sustained in the long run? Even if they continue to remain free, how accessible will they be to the public at large?”

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