On a spectrum ranging from green to maroon, New Delhi achieved Vantablack status in the early hours of 8 November 2018.

Different countries may have different parameters for measuring air quality index (AQI), but the colour codes are standard: green is good. Yellow, moderate. Maroon straddles anything from ‘hazardous’ to ’emergency’. But what colour do you associate with an AQI of 2000 (so off the charts, one can only liken it to a forest fire) when the hazardous limit in India is 500?

Answer: Vantablack. The darkest colour, one that absorbs 99.9% light – which also sums up the visibility over Delhi University’s North Campus a day after Diwali.

What is the situation?

The situation may not be as apocalyptic in Mumbai. Yet. But in the fourth aisle of a suburban Croma outlet, in a space once occupied by digital cameras (RIP), a gleaming, champagne-coloured device stands as a portent to our grotty times. The Honeywell Air Touch i8 and its neighbours – five Philips and a Blueair – attract a gaggle of customers who’ve wandered into the air purifier territory.

Two sales executives in the consumer electronics store hurry over, using buzzwords brands pay big bucks to market: ‘VitaShield IPS’. ‘HiSiv’. ‘HEPASilent’. This one has a thicker HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. That one has more ACH (air changes per hour). This one is better for a larger area.

“But if you ask me ma’am, these are the best,” says one, pointing to the Philips models. “Because they have a Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) of 0.02. Other brands have a 0.2 CADR.”

Wait. If CADR is the volume of air filtered in a minute, 0.02 is laughable in a market where higher CADRs are collar-popping material. Is it really CADR you’re talking about?

One executive flips through the company brochure, then replies: “Sorry, I meant EFS (effective filtration size). HEPA filters usually keep out particles measuring 0.2 microns and above. This means Philips can filter smaller particles. There’s also a three-year extended warranty offer…”

A similar scenario plays out in Vijay Sales, another electronics retail chain. Except here, a Philips sales assistant in a crisp blue shirt and khaki trousers talks about the brand’s AeraSense display – a “PM 2.5 reading in real-time, which others don’t have”…

“…are you offering an extended warranty?” the imp in me interjects.

“The product comes with a default two-year warranty ma’am,” the executive smiles.

“But Croma is offering a three-year extended warranty as a Diwali offer.”

“Oh… please give me few minutes. I’ll call the company and ask if we can make a similar offer.”

Three minutes later: “Ok ma’am, I’ve confirmed. We can also offer a three-year extended warranty. So, may I have your number if you’ve decided?”

And just like that, Philips has mastered the art of the lure in a country obsessed with warranties.

Outdoor vs indoor pollution

This isn’t about Philips or extended warranties. What this is about, is an increasingly-crowded market where any differentiation flies. If that means five-year warranties, or jargon, or claims about patented technology, so be it.

The Indian air purifier industry is on the cusp of breathing easy amidst a national air pollution crisis. You’ve probably been inundated with news about the alarming surge in particulate matter (PM) count, so we won’t hammer an already-nailed coffin. Let’s jump to (a) the data that carries this market on its shoulders, and (b) the business of air purifiers.

It took a 2015 visit to India by former US president Barack Obama (and the subsequent purchase of 1800 BlueAir purifiers by the US embassy) to kick this market into action. Considering this is still a nascent industry, official reports are hard to come by. But regardless of the in-house estimates or independent data you come across, annual unit sales are doubling (at the very least).

According to US-based market research firm TechSci Research (which has a Noida outpost), the Indian air purifier market is expected to be worth $209 million by 2021. Then there’s the outlook report by market research firm BlueWeave Consulting, which estimates unit sales to jump 5.7 times from 754,000 units in 2017 to 4,339,000 units in 2024, with a CAGR of 24% in terms of volume.