In 1992, Kamal Meattle's doctors asked him to pack his bags and leave New Delhi, a place he had always called home. The city's putrid air, they told him, had reduced his lung capacity drastically. Heading out seemed like the most sensible option. "My doctors told me to leave immediately. They told me there was no way I would survive here," reminisces Meattle.
More than two decades on, Meattle runs an office building that is among the purest on the planet. Meattle is the CEO of Paharpur Business Centre & Software Technology Incubator Park, a business centre located in Nehru Place that offers office spaces on lease. In a city where there is flagrant laxity in dealing with toxic levels of air pollution, Meattle seems like a welcome aberration. According to an IndiaSpend study, Delhi's air pollution is now one-and-a-half times worse than Beijing, making it the most polluted city in the world.
In a 2009 TED Talk, Meattle talked about how three common house plants - areca palm, mother-in-law's tongue and money plant - can actually help in growing your own fresh air. The talk has been viewed over a million times on YouTube.
At first, the Paharpur Business Centre seems like any other office building in bustling Nehru Place. On a smoggy December morning, stores in the computer market are rapidly being swarmed by buyers; hawkers are furiously setting up shop; dubious young men are offering fake laptops and hard disks. There isn't a static soul in sight.
With large wooden doors and narrow, snug corridors, the Paharpur has an alluring old-world charm to it. It offers an almost unseen plushness, seldom found in other modern-day offices. Beyond the entrance, a line of plants circumvent the waiting area. Rather expectedly, a balding security guard daubs a bit of sanitiser on your palms before letting you in.
The six-storey building, which is spread across 50,000 square ft, has over 1,200 plants. On the top of the sixth floor is a greenhouse that helps circulate fresh air after removing formaldehyde, benzene, bacteria and carbon monoxide from ambient air and pumping it into the air-conditioning system. The office has air purifiers in plenty. Giant television screens gently hanging on pale white walls display the air quality index and levels of carbon dioxide inside.
Seated inside Mango - one of the several conference rooms in the building - the soft-spoken, silver-haired Meattle, dressed in a simple white shirt and blue suit, says that his focus is on the health, wellness and happiness of his employees. In between, he even guzzles a shot of wheatgrass juice. "The air quality in Delhi has deteriorated alarmingly. We are negligent simply because we can't see that all the time. In the last so many years, we've been trying to change that." The major reason for such pollution, he says, is the microscopic PM 2.5 pollutant, which cannot be seen with the naked eye.
According to a 2008 study by the Central Pollution Control Board, tests carried out over the course of two years showed that there were 52 per cent fewer cases of eye irritation, 24 per cent fewer cases of headaches and a substantial difference in the occurrence of respiratory problems among employees here compared to other Delhi residents. The indoor air quality at Paharpur meets the standards set by the American Society for Housing, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers, a recognition it received in 1996. It is the lone building in India to get such a certification. In 2008, the Government of India tagged Paharpur as the "healthiest building in Delhi".
While areca palm works primarily during the day time, mother-in-law's tongue helps convert carbon dioxide into oxygen at night and money plant helps obliterate volatile organic compounds, a group of chemicals often toxic for humans. "We have placed all plants strategically, depending on the number of people we have on each floor," explains Meattle, who is also a trustee of The Climate Reality Project, a non-profit organisation founded by Al Gore.
Paharpur has been making other efforts to conserve energy. Inside the office cafe - named after Albert Einstein - the centre of each table has one plant. CFL bulbs have been replaced by LED lights. Candles that were once used to keep warm food inside large aluminium containers have given way to tiny induction heaters. Here too, tall money plants are a constant feature.
Meattle's ambitious sustainability plan seems to be working. A chat with employees at Paharpur gives you a brief glimpse into a happy and energetic workplace. The organisation has placed in certain corners of each floor an electric massage chair that the employees are free to use. A new wellness centre has been set up. A neat medical room - complete with biowaste dustbins - is situated on the fifth floor. "There is little doubt that your productivity goes up when you work in such an environment," says an employee. Employees here routinely undergo blood pressure checks and blood oxygen tests.
Still, everyone does not seem convinced. A Delhi-based environmentalist expresses her doubts by saying that you need at least 5-6 plants per person for such a plan to be implemented successfully, and that requires a gargantuan effort. "This can work in a small place. But it is almost impossible to implement this in a large office building," she says. Moreover, environmentalists says that the upkeep of an "indoor jungle" is a tedious task. Another problem faced by Paharpur is maintenance. It has to keep in its ranks a group of workers solely for the upkeep of plants, which require regular cleaning.
Meattle has shown that the impossible can be achieved but it comes at a hefty price. The cost of having your greenhouse, air purification system and hundreds of plants can run into lakhs of rupees. Meattle himself confesses that implementation costs can be a hassle. "Yes, everybody can't afford it. But if you calculate the benefits, it is a worthwhile investment. The costs are compensated well."
There is little surprise then that rentals for office spaces at Paharpur are flying through the roof. While exact numbers aren't available, the cost of renting an office here is 2-3 times more than that of an office in buildings nearby. "One, it is a business centre. So, it's ready for you to move in. Two, with the environmental benefits that it provides, it doesn't come cheap," says Rajesh Chugh, a local property dealer.
Yet, Meattle seems convinced. On the rooftop, the walls inside the greenhouse are bedecked with money plants in the half-cut mineral water plastic bottles. Smaller plants hang from the ceiling. Outside, a group of workers is working on setting up solar panels. A couple of paces away, a part of the rooftop has been shut down for the construction of a new gymnasium.
Last year, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living put in a request to rent the rooftop to conduct yoga classes. Meattle declined, instead offering to replicate the rooftop at a different location through Breathe Easy, a division of Paharpur that offers pollution solutions.
Breath Easy, which started operations in 2013, is headed by Barun Aggarwal, Meattle's son-in-law. Aggarwal says that with greater awareness, more people are turning to them for better air solutions. Breathe Easy helps companies implement solutions to improve indoor air quality by providing technical expertise, air purifiers and, of course, plants.
Meattle's next target is the Well Building Standard, a performance-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring features that impact human health, initiated by former US President Bill Clinton. "We are now focusing on every aspect of an employee's life - air, water, nourishment, light, fitness," says Meattle. "There is always scope for improvement. Getting healthier should never stop," he says with a smile.