As Delhi chokes on air so dirty that many struggle to breathe or develop niggling coughs or far more serious respiratory problems, some residents are heading to an upscale mall for a brief respite.
At the city’s first so-called oxygen bar, they fork out $4 to $7 for a whiff of rejuvenating air.
Among those who get a tube (nasal cannula) tied to their nose for a 15-minute lungful of oxygen is travel agent, Nischay Manchanda.
“Its been quite some time since I have experienced how fresh air feels like, so I saw this place and I thought let’s just try it out,” he told VOA.
Since the onset of winter, when pollution levels frequently breach the severe category, more customers have been walking into the small Oxy Pure bar that opened earlier this year in the world’s most polluted capital city.
This week, the air pollution index in India’s capital city touched 400, a level at which people are advised to stay indoors. The index measures the particles that become embedded deep in lungs, causing irreversible damage. Anything above 60 is considered unhealthy, and doctors have sounded dire warnings about the dirty air’s impact on public health, saying it can stunt brain development in children or cause lung cancer.
A spell of rain cleaned up the air somewhat Saturday but experts warned that the city would suffer another episode of toxic smog toward the end of the month and into the new year as temperatures drop and stagnant air traps pollutants low over the city.
“People are coming with problems like eye itching, throat paining or they can't breathe properly,” Bonny Irengbam, the manager at Oxy Pure, said.
There has been a growing public outcry about the toxic air. Worried parents have even called for a “smog break” in schools every year in November when pollution peaks.
Despite several measures to tackle the air pollution crisis, authorities have barely scratched the surface of the problem.
Calling living conditions in Delhi “worse than hell,” Supreme Court judges, who have been monitoring plans to tackle pollution, chastised city authorities two weeks ago.
“Why are people being forced to live in gas chambers?” a two-judge bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Deepak Gupta asked.
Steps have been taken, including a switch by public transport to cleaner fuel, a ban on the use of dirty industrial fuel, the shutting of coal-fired power plants in Delhi, and construction of new highways so that polluting trucks using diesel do not enter the city.
It has, however, been a case of one step forward and two steps back in a city that has grown at breakneck speed over the last 15 years – 45 million people live in Delhi and surrounding satellite towns. Its fleet of nearly 9 million vehicles continues to grow as the affluent snap up new cars while millions of poor migrants burn polluting fires to stay warm on chilly winter nights. Construction and industrial activity are booming and the number of diesel-powered generators used by factories and offices to make it through power shortfalls, has been growing.
Some people leave the city when it is shrouded in smog.
Sahej Walia, an event manager, said he leaves the city for a few weeks in winter but it is not possible to stay away for three months from November to January, now known as the city’s “pollution season.”
“I was in Goa and the air there was much cleaner, but yeah, once I am back, I could feel the air was bad and my head was spinning all the time,” he said. He walks into the oxygen bar, which he discovered on social media, hoping “this oxygen therapy could help me out.”
Oxy Pure even offers a “pollution special” including five sessions for the price of four.
Foreigners are among those pumping up on oxygen, which comes in flavors such as eucalyptus and lavender.
Inna Ossinkina, a Russian who frequently visits India to study Buddhism, was at the bar not just to escape the pollution but also because breathing the right way ties in with meditation and yoga.
“Ten minutes will not rescue me,” she says, “I have to then buy a bottle [of oxygen] and go around with a bottle, right?”
As travel agent Manchanda’s session draws to an end, he takes a deep breath.
“It’s a shame we have to buy air, it’s something that should be there automatically,” he sighs bracing to tackle the smog choked skies once again.
Life for him has changed – a few years ago he says he visited “hookah” bars, now he has to stop by at an oxygen bar.