Bad News: The alarming rise of India’s Pay-to-Breathe Industry

Air pollution is a growing problem in India that is affecting the health and well-being of millions of people. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

By Derek Ren, Alliance Intern from the University of California, Los Angeles

“Almost the entire population of India” is exposed to air pollution above the guidelines set by the World Health Organization, according to a 2022 report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. As Wired points out, air pollution in India (equal to smoking up to 50 cigarettes/day) has caused a surge in respiratory illness and killed 1.6 million Indians in 2019. Facing potentially deadly air quality outside, wealthier Indians are paying to breathe free, creating a booming market for air purifiers that is forecast to grow 35% to $597 million by 2027.

However, buying cleaner air is not an option for the vast majority of the population. Cheaper models of air purifiers start at $72 and are out of reach for the 60% of India’s nearly 1.3 billion people who live on less than $3.10 a day, below the World Bank’s median poverty line. Not counting farm workers, 18% of the country’s population work outdoors, so paying for breathable air isn’t an option for them either. A new kind of inequality is taking hold in a country already divided along caste, gender, and religious lines, with 10% of the population holding 77% of the wealth. 

Attempts to fix the problem at the source are failing. “We are normalizing a world that hardly values nature and natural rights — basic necessities like clean drinking water, fresh and unpolluted air, space to walk for pedestrians is neither part of urban planning nor [do they] concern our collective conscience,” says Suryakant Waghmore, professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology. Waghmore says air purifiers purify air for the privileged “while the public is left to decay and degrade.”

Exposure to high levels of particulate matter under 2.5 micrometers, which gets stuck in people’s lungs can cause deadly illnesses such as lung cancer, strokes, and heart disease. Deaths linked to this pollution have more than doubled in the past 20 years, claiming 979,900 lives in 2019. According to the World Air Quality Report 2022, air pollution costs India $150 billion a year.

Despite government attempts to address air quality, the number of cities that fail to meet pollution standards has increased from 102 to 132 in less than five yearsIndia’s air quality crisis has prompted additional government and private attempts to address the issue, including “odd-even” schemes, “smog towers,” and outdoor air purifiers.

However, these measures are insufficient and outdoor purifiers are a last resort. Critics also accuse the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board of moving air quality sensors to “cleaner” areas of the city. Experts say that the government needs to invest in public infrastructure and transport to counter environmental degradation, and that air purifiers are not the solution.

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