Residents throng oxygen bar for a 15-minute fix as New Delhi struggles to catch its breath
▶ New concept turns a profit as it makes the most of city’s worsening air quality, writes Taniya Dutta
With a cannula strapped to his nose, Vikas Bangar inhaled lemongrass-scented oxygen at a tiny bar in a swanky mall in New Delhi.
The 30-year-old rookie film producer landed in the capital from Mumbai and rushed to an oxygen bar to breathe in the gas as the air quality dropped to record lows in the past two weeks.
“When you are in Delhi, this session is a must,” Mr Bangar said. “I landed here at 6am today. At first, I thought it was foggy but soon I realised it was polluted air. Everything outside was blurry. My eyes were burning, even inside the airport.”
Mr Bangar is one of many who readily spend $4 (Dh14) for a hit of unpolluted air for 15 minutes at the Oxy Pure oxygen bar. Delhi is battling its worst pollution crisis since 2016 when Air Quality Index levels were five times the level considered safe by the World Health Organisation.
About 46 million residents of the city have been gasping for fresh air with AQI levels hovering in the emergency to hazardous levels since November 3.
On Thursday, the crisis became so severe that the state government shut all primary schools for the second time this month.
Authorities were forced to announce a public health emergency and launch a controversial vehicle-rationing programme for 10 days after levels of PM 2.5 – the particulate matter that penetrates through the lungs into the bloodstream – in the air surpassed 999 micrograms in many locations this month.
The WHO places the safe limit at 25 micrograms.
“I am feeling lighter. I can feel the aroma in my body,” Mr Bangar said after his session was over.
At Select Citywalk, an upmarket shopping mall in south Delhi, curious shoppers gazed at four fluorescent bubbling beakers in the window of the Oxy Pure bar.
Despite giving a fresh shot of healthy air in the style of an intensive care unit complete with a nasal cannulae and staff in white coats, the small bar does not feel like a clinic.
It has bright lights, a floor-toceiling garden installation and water fountain.
“I wanted it to be a fun experience for people and not have a clinic vibe,” Aryavir Kumar, 26, the man behind Oxy Pure, told The National.
At the bar, customers inhale clean, aromatic oxygen through a cannula connected to an oxygen concentrator that spins oxygen purified from the air around it.
They are given seven options of fragrances and they include lavender, orange, eucalyptus, and cinnamon. The experience is only for adults between 18 and 65 years of age.
Capitalising on the wealth of news coverage on Delhi’s deteriorating air quality, the bar offers a pollution special – five sessions for the price of four.
“The machine purifies the air around us into 95 per cent oxygen while the air we breathe has 21 per cent oxygen. This is why the session is for 15 minutes, it could be harmful otherwise,” Mr Aryavir said.
The businessman, whose family owns a hospitality company, opened the bar with his friend, Margarita Kuritsyna, 25, from Ukraine, in May this year after a visit to an oxygen bar in Las Vegas.
Although the business did not make much profit initially, Mr Aryavir said the footfall at the bar had increased twofold in the past two weeks.
“Air pollution is going to dangerous levels, so people are coming here to breathe pure oxygen,” he said.
“When we opened the bar, people found it strange. They would ask if the fluorescent water in the beakers was for drinking. It was a new concept.
“We would get 15-20 people a day. Now we are getting 30-40 customers every day.”
Doctors reported a surge of patients with severe respiratory problems and chest pain in the past few weeks. But several ministers trivialised the issue, including India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan who advised people to eat carrots to fight the harmful effects of pollution.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to acknowledge the alarming situation despite several students appealing to him to take steps to ensure they could breathe clean air.
On Friday, his office set up a panel to look into the situation but a parliamentary meeting to discuss air pollution was cancelled because only four of 29 officials attended.
In the absence of a concrete plan to control air pollution, distressed residents say they are looking for preventive measures such as air purifiers, anti-pollution masks and now the oxygen bar, to stay healthy.
But the benefits of inhaling oxygen in this way have not been proven. “There is no scientific research to show that breathing pure oxygen for a short period of time is beneficial,” said Dr Vikas Maurya, head of the pulmonology department at Fortis Hospital.
“As health professionals, we cannot ethically or morally support providing oxygen therapy to those who do not require it. It may even be harmful to the patient [with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] for whom giving extra oxygen can cause a loss of respiratory drive and result in carbon dioxide retention in their body, which can lead to emergency hospitalisation.”
Karanjit Singh, 40, who has lived all his life in Delhi, is shocked by the pollution, which has dramatically worsened over the past few years.
“Look at the environment in Delhi, we are gasping for pure oxygen. With this kind of pollution, we require more such bars in India,” he said.
“When I was a kid, there were fewer people, fewer vehicles and less construction. But now, pollution has spiked.
“The government needs to be proactive and need to stop farm [stubble] fires. They need to improve things otherwise it is going to keep getting worse.”
For Mr Aryavir, who is delighted with the sudden positive response to Oxy Pure, it is an opportunity to open another bar at the city’s international airport.
“People ask me, ‘now we have to buy oxygen?’ But 30 years ago no one would have thought of buying mineral water.
“The bar is not reducing pollution from the air and it is not a permanent solution to pollution. But it is giving some relief to the people and if we keep polluting the environment, things like this will keep popping up,” he said.
Residents inhale healthy air in a setting that resembles an intensive care unit, complete with nasal cannulae