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The Colonial Roots of India’s Air Pollution Crisis

D Asher Ghertner ( teaches at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Tracing the genealogy of the scientific claim that Indian lung capacity is deficient vis-à-vis the “European norm,” it is argued that the pathologisation of the Indian lung that once justified colonial-era segregation has made a troubling contemporary return, producing state imperceptibility of pollution-induced illness. Specifically, colonial theories of tropical air suggest that the Indian lung is uniquely suited to a dusty environment. When invoked in the present, this obviates the need for urgent pollution abatement action.

The author is grateful to Anjanette Vaidya for essential research assistance on the history of racialised lung science. The author is thankful to Preetha Mani and two anonymous reviewers for highly generative suggestions, only some of which could be addressed in this article but which will continue to shape the author’s thinking on questions of coloniality as this project evolves.

In January 2019, Supreme Court Justice Arun Mishra expressed personal anguish over Delhi’s persistently poor air quality. Describing air pollution’s infringement upon citizens’ right to life, he framed Delhi’s slow pace in resolving what is now known as “airpocalypse” (Dahiya et al 2017) as a direct result of government implementation failure (Hindu 2019). The month before, Chairman of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel ordered the Delhi government to place a ₹25 crore deposit with the Central Pollution Control Board, citing its failure to curb air pollution stemming from plastic burning. Despite the NGT’s clear directions, Justice Goel said, pollution has continued unabated (Satish Kumar and Others v Union of Indian and Others 2018):

Inaction of the authorities in the present matter has aggravated the environmental degradation and caused loss of human health also. They have failed to remedy the situation inspite (sic) of repeated opportunities.

Government inaction, implementation failure, delayed or missed deadlines, and piecemeal restrictions on single emission sources have hence characterised the collective response to the atmospheric crisis in Delhi and metropolitan India more generally.1 A political blame game has ensued, with charges levelled across party lines that the various agencies with the capacity to act at the city, state, and national levels have neither coordinated to develop an adequate pollution-remediation strategy, nor taken the issue as the life-or-death matter the medical profession considers it to be (Safi 2017). On these terms, it would appear we have a case of what Crenson (1971), in his classic study of air pollution inaction in the United States (US) cities, calls the un-politics of air pollution, a politically enforced form of governance neglect in which environment and health never get their due.

This article argues that today’s atmospheric crisis has roots that run deeper than governance failure, technological incapacity, or deficient political will—components of what Crenson (1971) analyses as “non-decision-making.” Moving beyond these common diagnostics of urban disorder, without denying their real contribution to the crisis, it argues that the governance stasis hanging over polluted Indian cities today has been shaped by a colonial epistemology of tropicality. This colonial epistemology is explored by studying historical discourses pertaining to Indian lung capacity, an area of surprising biopolitical relevance today. By tracing the genealogy of the scientific claim—widely invoked in media, health, and judicial discourse in India in recent years—that the “vital capacity” of the Indian lung is deficient vis-à-vis the “European norm,” it is suggested that the pathologisation of the Indian lung has served different functions historically.

It has variously worked as (i) a justification for colonial policies of segregation, (ii) a basis for enhanced postcolonial environmental regulation, and (iii) the speculative grounds today for key Indian government ministries to ignore pollution-induced illness and death under the assumption that bad air is a natural, background condition of tropical life. Tracing resonances between early 20th-century medical renderings of the Indian lung and present-day discourses of unique “Indian conditions,” it is shown how neo-Lamarckian logic of racial inheritance underpins state discourse about atmospheric composition and health, impairing the capacity to produce clean air. Until this colonial framing is undone, airpocalypse will remain just another confirmation of the Indo-Gangetic plains’ tropical otherness.

Pathologising the Indian Lung

“Studies show that citizens [of India] have 30% lower lung capacity than Europeans,” declares what came to be known as the “Three Infants” petition, a high-profile air-pollution case submitted to the Supreme Court in 2015 that led to a series of temporary bans on firecracker sale before Diwali in 2016 and 2017 (Arjun Gopal and Others v The Union of India and Others 2018). The petition requests an immediate judicial intervention to reduce ambient air-pollution levels in Delhi to protect citizens’ “right to clean, healthy and breathable air”—in short, their right to life—especially the right of children, who “are the worst affected, as their lungs have not yet fully developed and their vulnerable systems are made (more) vulnerable” by extended pollution exposure. While the most commented upon rhetorical innovation of this case is its use of infant petitioners, the petition’s moral charge comes equally from its repeated invocation of Indian lung deficiency vis-à-vis European standards. Infantile lungs, while especially vulnerable, thus become but a subclass of a more generally weak Indian pulmonary apparatus.

Indian lung “deficiency,” it turns out, is an accepted scientific truth, widely cited in judicial, media, and medical discourse as the health baseline upon which air pollution strikes. Consider a few headlines from recent years: “World’s Worst Lungs Are in India” (Mudur 2011), “Lung Capacity of Indians 30% Lower than North Americans: Scientist” (PTI 2017), “South Asians Have 21.2% Less Puff than the Chinese” (Banyan 2014). One of India’s foremost pulmonary experts, Anurag Agarwal, explained the medical findings that support these stories in an interview with the Times of India in still more direct terms: “Indians have 30% lower lung function than a white European of the same height, weight, age and gender” (Nandi 2017). This 30% deficiency is based on repeated spirometry-based medical studies measuring Indian “vital capacity,” defined as the maximum amount of air a person can expel from their lungs after a maximum inhalation. As Duong et al (2013: 599) write in the Lancet,

Compared with North America or Europe, FEV1 [forced expiratory volume in one second, one measure of vital capacity] adjusted for height, age, and sex was 31.3% lower in South Asia.

Claims of Indian lung deficiency have a distinct genealogy, traceable to a 1929 study published in the Indian Medical Gazette by S L Bhatia, Dean of Grant Medical College, Bombay. Citing the scientific canon of spirometric studies through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bhatia (1929: 519) noted that “race seems to have a definite influence on vital capacity.” He continues, “This existence of a possible racial factor led me to take up this subject,” with “the object of this investigation” being “to ascertain normal standards for vital capacity of Indians, and see how far they differ from the standards given for Western people.” Based on measures of 100 Indian male “normal subjects,” Bhatia concluded that “the vital capacity of the lungs of this group of 100 Indians is much smaller than normal standards given for Western people.” His depiction of Indian levels as 70%–90% of “the normal” appears to be the first written trace of the 30% deficiency finding (Bhatia 1929: 520).

The hypothesis positing non-White pulmonary deficiency vis-à-vis White lungs was espoused far earlier by Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the US, in his discussion of the “difference in structure of the pulmonary apparatus” (Jefferson 1829 [1781]: 145). Jefferson’s theories sought to prove that the Black people were especially suited to agricultural labour in the US South, thanks to their presumed greater tolerance of heat as compared with White people (Braun 2014: 28). Lung size, it was suggested, had an inverse relation with the capacity of the body to dissipate heat. John Hutchinson (as cited in Bhatia 1929: 519), in the very first sentence of his 1929 paper, was the first person to use the term “vital capacity of the lungs.” He advanced the notion of racially differentiated vital capacities in the mid-19th century by offering new techniques “organised to enhance the epistemic authority of comparative scientific analyses of racial ‘traits’” (Braun 2014: xv). The plantation physician Samuel Cartwright used these techniques to test Jefferson’s interpretive framework, finding that “the deficiency in the negro” was “20 per cent.” Defining difference as “deficiency,” Cartwright “established race as a key organising principle of lung function measurements” (Braun 2015: 100).

It was not until the 1920s that globally comparative race-based studies of lung function came into widespread circulation, introducing into pulmonary medicine what Wilson and Edwards (1922) called “a possible racial factor.” Bhatia cited Wilson and Edwards as inspiration for his study, but a still more direct circuitry of comparative lung science emerged through the Rockefeller Foundation’s efforts to globalise Western medical technique. While serving as a visiting professor at Peking Union Medical College in 1921, established by John D Rockefeller in 1915, Harvard-based physician–scientist Francis Peabody delivered a lecture on the “Clinical Importance of the Vital Capacity of the Lungs” to an audience including numerous foreign dignitaries, among whom was American physician John Foster, then based at the Hunan–Yale Hospital (Braun 2014: 130). Two years later, Foster published the first systematic study of vital capacity among “the Eastern Races” with his Chinese collaborator P L Hsieh (Foster and Hsieh 1923). In the only table presented in his paper, Bhatia (1929) reproduced Foster and Hsieh’s standards for Chinese men but also used their numbers for American lung function as the benchmark against which Indian deficiency could be gauged. This marked a moment of global diffusion of spirometric norms in which whiteness became an assumed standard.

Racial Inheritance and Tropical Dust

A global industry of spirometric studies centred on ethnic variation in lung function emerged by the mid 20th century focused narrowly on anthropometric and genetic underpinnings, with virtually no mention of environmental or dietary factors that might contribute to variation in lung capacity. J E Cotes’s (1965: 356) popular handbook Lung Function is indicative of this framing:

In general the vital capacities of people of European descent appear to be larger than those of other ethnic groups; of these, the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and the people of Polynesian stock appear to have the smallest volumes with the Negroid and Mongoloid peoples intermediate.

These findings were reproduced in updated studies in the 1970s (Joshi et al 1973) and have held into the present. In the most recent, sixth edition of Lung Function, Cotes et al’s (2009: 371) summary has barely changed, confirming that across India “the levels of lung function … are systematically lower than in Caucasians (16%–28% lower).” The study most frequently mentioned by the Indian media as the reference for the 30% lung deficiency simply notes in passing that “the contribution of socioeconomic, genetic, and environmental factors and their interactions with lung function and lung health need further clarification” (Duong et al 2013: 599).

The uptake of such lung studies in India cannot be understood outside the colonial medical milieu in which it was originally enmeshed. Late-19th century theories of racial immunity, or the view of racially differentiated disease susceptibility (Harrison 1999), was central to the medical study of respiratory illnesses—especially tuberculosis—as well as more widespread climatic anxieties about European exposure to tropical air (Kennedy 1999). This is because colonial science of the period understood races to be defined by biological differences separated by climate, “with each sharing its prescribed salubrious limits” (Hutchins 1967: 161).

The establishment of schools and hospitals in the metropole dedicated to tropical medicine—even those founded after the rise of modern germ theories that had challenged earlier miasma theories on which much thinking on tropical difference rested—“reflected the conviction that particular diseases and broader factors affecting health really were foreign to European experience” (Hamlin 2014: 37). For “medical purposes,” Hamlin argues, “‘climate’ effectively became an attribute of otherness,” making climate “the most important determinant, not only of health but of moral and physical characteristics” in 19th century medicine in India (Harrison 1999: 120). For colonial physicians globally at the time, “racial endowment provided a potent, if somewhat inchoate, means of understanding observed differences in disease susceptibility” (Anderson 2006: 95–96).

Due to scientific advances, by the early 20th century, immunity seemed less a fixed racial characteristic, but a role nonetheless remained for racial inheritance. In his book Geography of
, for example, F G Clemow (1903: 5) expressed the common opinion that a physiological immunity acquired to certain germs or poisons might become

not merely an individual immunity, but a racial immunity, transmissible from generation to generation, and truly permanent so long as man shall continue to live in an atmosphere of these particular organisms.

In his remarks delivered at the opening of the Section of Tropical Disease at the British Medical Association in 1900, Colonel Kenneth MacLeod (1900: 295), describing typhoid and “dust colic”—a disease caused by “the swallowing with water and food of irritating dust particles of grit blown by the dust storms”—argued that “the native immunity in India, though not absolute, is undoubted.” Understandings of Indian immunity to dust and atmospheric pollution intersected with interest in the comparative study of racial “traits” that globalising spirometry offered in the early 20th century. The physiological difference in lungs, in other words, mapped onto immunological difference, with vital capacity operating as an anthropometric confirming functional difference across race—part of a broader metrical mode of elaborating theories of race that has continued in post-independence India (Solomon 2016: 43). Small lungs confirmed, so it went, Indians’ racial adaptation to tropical air.

The inchoate theory of racial immunity, by no means universally shared among scientists, was a product of the neo-Lamarckianism, still latent in much medical and social theory at the time. Lamarckianism, after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), is a theory of evolution based on

the assumption that changes of the structure produced by the activity of the adult organism can be reflected in the material of heredity and passed down to the next generation. Exercise, use, and disuse are known to affect the size of various organs. (Bowler 1983: 257)

Lamarck’s focus on organ development, organ size and its relationship with use, and the variations in organ use based on environment (that is, environmental changechange of usechange in organ size) were central to his focus on the gradual transmutation of the species through non-genetic inheritance. This became a central framework upon which studies of racial difference were extended, even after the wider acceptance of Darwinian mechanisms of natural selection that challenged Lamarck’s premises (Wood 2013: 510). William Ripley, for example, explained Jewish “deficiency” in lung capacity in 1899 as “an acquired characteristic, the effect of long continued subjection to an unfavourable sanitary and social environment … (which) nonetheless become a hereditary ‘trait’” (cited in Stocking 1968: 243). While experimental biology in the early 20th century led to a decline of scientific Lamarckianism, its influence would endure in the treatment of “race differentia” widespread in social science into the mid 20th century (Stocking 1968: 240–43).

The Postcolonial Lung

Indian lung “deficiency” was rarely invoked explicitly in post-colonial scientific or policy discourse in India. In 1996, the Centre for Science and the Environment (CSE) addressed it indirectly in its influential report on air pollution in Delhi, Slow Murder (Sharma and Roychowdhury 1996). Citing a study by the Central Road Research Institute that had conducted spirometry-based studies of vital capacity, it noted how the already lower lung function of urban Indians was further depleted amongst those suffering extended exposure to heavily polluted vehicular environments (Sharma and Roychowdhury 1996: 110–11). This marked a mobilisation of reduced vital capacity as a unique vulnerability.

While not directly referencing the 30% deficiency, this form of epidemiological activism aimed to improve not just environmental regulations vis-à-vis Western norms, but also Indian deficits vis-à-vis global health standards. Contemporary air-pollution litigation has continued to mobilise a moral claim to global health on this same basis, positing small lungs as vulnerable lungs. The well-known “Three Infants” case in the Supreme Court that led to the 2016 firecracker sales ban, as well as the wide-ranging orders issued in the NGT, including the ban on diesel vehicles more than 10 years old and petrol vehicles more than 15 years old (Vardhaman Kaushik v Union of India 2016), follow this framework.

Studies based on the Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) 2017 have bolstered the view of Indian pulmonary vulnerability, even though they do not treat disease risk factors as differentiated based on race or country of origin (Stanaway et al 2018). They do so by inserting India’s high ambient air-pollution concentrations into published integrated exposure–response (IER) functions for air pollution—which define the expected increase in death and illness caused by levels of pollution exposure within a population—showing a massive increase in disability-adjusted life years (DALY) in India. The most comprehensive GBD-based study conducted in India to date (Balakrishnan et al 2019: 2), for example, estimated that 1.24 million premature deaths took place in India in 2017 due to air pollution and called for “rapid deployment of effective multisectoral policies.” The University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index (Greenstone and Qing Fan 2018: 4), using less conservative assumptions, estimated that the people of Delhi on an average lose more than 10 years of life due to bad air, and the World Health Organization (WHO 2018) declared “air pollution the most important single risk factor for premature disability and death in India.”2

Petitioners in court seeking pollution remedies have invoked these studies directly as a justification for needing to take radical environmental action, with estimates of “deficient” Indian vital capacity adding to their moral charge. The Supreme Court and NGT judges passing orders to improve atmospheric health have similarly cited both “small” Indian lungs and GBD-based estimates of mass atmospheric death to explain their decisions. A whole range of new renderings of atmospheric life in these orders, including a drift away from a more individuated notion of biological life towards a more atmospheric conception of average life conditions within an airshed (Ghertner forthcoming), is hence underpinned by conceptions of Indians’ unique pulmonary vulnerability. Defending the nation, in this framing, requires defending the collective lung—a biopolitical mobilisation of global epidemiology prevalent in other postcolonial contexts as well (Choy 2011; Fukuda 2017).

Immune to Pollution?

However, an alternative interpretation of the “difference” of Indian lung function has re-emerged in these same public conversations and judicial debates, positing lower lung capacity not as a source of vulnerability to air pollution, but rather as a sign of resilience to it—much like the claims of racial immunity in colonial science. For example, in Vardhaman Kaushik v Government of India (2016) the most wide-ranging air pollution case being heard before the NGT, the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises filed an affidavit in 2016 as part of a challenge to the above-mentioned old-vehicle ban that questioned the validity of GBD-based studies for India:

For any disease to be cured by a doctor, it is very critical to identify the cause of illness. As without accurate diagnosis, it is not possible to offer medication, similarly without identifying the actual cause of pollution, it would not be possible to recommend measures for reducing the same in Delhi and NCR.3

As clarified further in oral testimony, the ministry here contested globally benchmarked IERs for air pollution, saying that further evidence derived from Indian studies was required. In addition to challenging the court-accepted evidence that Delhi has indeed become more polluted (a position linked to its call in the quotation above to study “the actual cause of pollution”), it suggested that “fine dust” cannot be presumed to harm the Indian lung in the same way as it harms the European lung because of its natural occurrence on the subcontinent. In doing so, the ministry reintroduced a colonial spectre of tropical difference based on the idea of the Indo-Gangetic plains as an inherently polluted atmosphere.4 The Member of Parliament from New Delhi, Meenakshi Lekhi, deployed this trope elsewhere in disputing the need for action to curb Delhi’s air pollution, remarking that “Delhi smog is a natural phenomenon, happening due to Delhi’s geography, and there are places with worse air than Delhi” (quoted in Somvashi 2015).

The Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has extended this logic, challenging GBD-based estimates of air-pollution-induced DALYs in India:

These numbers are not validated for Indian conditions and there are no conclusive data available to establish direct correlation of death exclusively with air pollution ... International studies should not be cited as reference.5

The Union Environment Minister, Anil Madhav Dave, pushed this view when responding to the Indian Medical Association’s claim that air pollution in Delhi constituted a “health emergency” by insisting that “medical history, immunity, and heredity of the individuals” falling ill must be considered. Placing the question of immunity to pollution at the centre of his remarks, he discounted reports of premature death “from the outside.” “India trusts its own reports. We take decisions based on our own reports” (quoted in Mohan 2017). The current Union Environment Minister, Harsh Vardhan, has reinforced this view repeatedly, stating in Parliament that “ultimately these studies have to be India-centric” and that, while smog is potentially harmful, it “does not kill.” The MoEFCC secretary reinforced this position in January 2019, noting that “we have no data linking air pollution with death” in India (quoted in Nandi 2017), hinting that such data would only emerge after IERs specific to Indian populations were developed—that is, many years in the future.

The Supreme Court and NGT, echoing the wider Indian public health community, rejected outright the arguments of these central government ministries, pushing instead for a range of remedial measures. These included, inter alia, the above-mentioned old-vehicle ban, fines to prevent unnecessary construction dust, and a graded response action plan that imposes increasingly stringent pollution-reduction measures when set pollution levels are exceeded.6 But, these judicial decrees, by their very nature, are reactionary and unlikely to structurally modify emissions sources, such as reducing the dependence on coal or the growth of car use (Narain and Roychowdhury 2016). Central government invocations of Indians’ unique biological response to air pollution, as a result, has prevented a sustained national initiative to produce air otherwise, despite the dynamic efforts of the judiciary, environmental scientists, and civil society activists.

The reactivation of a neo-Lamarckian logic of racial inheritance positing Indians as uniquely suited to air pollution thus indicates something more than a worrying portent for the future of public health in India. It also marks the coloniality of air pollution as both a cultural signifier and a biophysical fact. This does not mean that today’s atmospheric degradation is the direct outcome of colonial industry or environmental policy—it most clearly is not. It rather indicates that degraded human potential today acquires an imperceptibility conditioned by the corrosive effects of a revitalised colonial logic positing India as an already degraded environment. While spun as a challenge to Western biomedical authority, the government’s defence of its relative air pollution inaction on the grounds of India’s unique ethno-racial inheritance has upheld the very colonial logic of a “natural” division of populations, denying to its own citizens the conditions of a healthy life.

Air’s Coloniality

This article has explored one way in which atmospheric death is rendered imperceptible.7 The colonial roots of racialised physiology in India show that the repeated citation of physiological differences today—the assertion that Indian lungs are distinct from European lungs—carries with it a set of assumptions about the relationship between bodies and the environment. Inherited with the surprising contemporary reappearance of the theory of “racial inheritance”—evident in the implicit claim that Indian lungs have a unique pulmonary apparatus suited to dirty air—is a colonial inheritance of assumptions about tropical otherness. An extreme expression of this is the suggestion that globally derived IER ratios for air pollution—the epidemiological standard for understanding pollution’s risk factors—fail to account for “Indian conditions,” despite no scientific evidence that differences in lung capacity (anatomy) lead to functional differences in lung design (physiology) (Stocks et al 2014).

This framing of Indian physiological exceptionalism is unparalleled in other (sub)tropical, postcolonial nations, and it marks something more than a return of colonial medical presumptions. It also justifies a broader disposition towards outside air rooted in long-standing logics of enclosure and escape—what might be described as an ontology of sequestration as against one of abatement. The colonial model of tropical air advanced a distinctly introverted atmospheric disposition where the modern self was to be shielded from the corrupting forces of tropical nature—both human and non-human. Retreat to military cantonments and civil lines (Legg 2007), the use of the colonial bungalow as a bulwark against threats from the outside, and whole manuals on military dress appropriate to shield the European body from the “mischief of the air” (Jeffrey 1858) were built on a combination of climatic anxieties and efforts to maintain cultural distinction. These colonial architectural, planning, and bodily logics intersected with existing native, especially Hindu, systems of environmental maintenance where being far from, or perceived to be far from, bad smells and bad air was itself an ethical act (McHugh 2012). The dismissal of the urgent medical need to abate ambient air pollution levels in the public city today, and the treatment of deadly air as a natural fact—as the central government ministries have implicitly done—contributes to the normalisation of the sequestration model for contemporary atmospheric conduct.

What else is one to do but bunker down or escape when the environment is deadly? In place of aggressive environmental remediation and emission reductions, Indian cities are today witness to an explosion of private technologies aimed at designing prosthetic atmospheres in and around the bodies of those capable of paying for them. In place of the colonial bungalow and solar topi once understood to shield the vulnerable European self, we today find the home-based air purifier and personal air pollution mask guarding the middle-class urbanite. Class society is now literally mappable onto spheres of air-conditioned containment.

Older colonial logics of atmospheric escape are not so far from the contemporary atmospheric imaginary either. Consider the startling resonance between contemporary discussions of the salutary effects of hill vacations—the “pollu-cation,” or lung cleansing holiday—and colonial notions of “the magic mountains” (Kennedy 1996). Nostalgic evocations of colonial architecture and the pure, temperate airs of once-colonial hill stations are now common, driven by logics of urban flight redolent of the imperial “hill craze” of fin-de-siècle British India. Two recent articles praising Landour, outside Mussoorie, as an ideal pollu-cation destination are suggestive. “Planning to Escape Delhi’s Noxious Air during Diwali? Here Are Six Pollution-free Places To Go To,” published in Scroll (Bhattacharya 2017), said of Landour, praising its clean environment: “In a throwback to the Raj era, colonial bungalows and churches define the town’s narrow streets.” An article from Yatra (2018) on pollution escape described Landour as

a gorgeous Himalayan hamlet known for its clean, bracing air, colonial legacy and spectacular scenery … (I)t was here that the British set up a military sanatorium in the early 19th century ... Now, it’s all about gabled cottages with evocative Scottish, Welsh and Irish names, mountain walks and a quaint café or two.

The contrast between naturally polluted cities and temperate hill purity in these descriptions is the topographic variant of the shared epistemology of tropical otherness that also informs racialised understandings of the lung. The idea of the purifying effects of the hills, then and now, rests on a medical topography in which the plains can only be imagined as unremediably polluted (Harrison 1999). Why invest in cleaning up Indian cities when, so it is assumed, they are naturally contaminated to begin with?

While a careful treatment of the legacies of sequestration is beyond the scope of this article, these speculative questions have been posed as a way to ask how areas of policy non-movement become such. Public opposition to the odd–even scheme, which the Delhi government launched in 2016 to try to reduce car traffic and emissions, might, through this framing, be understood not just as a symptom of middle-class
demand for automobility. It could also be seen as part of the durable logic of sequestration wherein the enclosed car becomes a prosthetic extension of the body, an air-enclosing unit that reinforces one’s isolation from the already polluted outside—a foundation of both caste and colonial racial differentiation (Guru 2009).

Most of the discussion on how the air pollution is maintained as a “non-issue”—in Crenson’s (1971) sense an urgent public matter that fails to generate matched political action—has focused on the overpowering growth imperative of national economic policy, or else on governance failure or state/technological incapacity. This article instead suggested that thinking of other possible airs also requires more careful examination of the conditions maintaining air pollution’s unthinkability. Until the colonial epistemology of tropical otherness is broken down, we can, unfortunately, expect technologies of sequestration to go on superseding structural efforts to produce air otherwise.


1 According the IQAir Group that specialises in technology solutions for airborne pollutants, 15 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India (Koshy 2019).

2 GBD-based studies estimate far lower reductions in air-pollution-induced life expectancy than the Chicago study. Balakrishnan et al (2019: 9) estimate a 1.6-year loss in Delhi, noting, however, the likely “underestimation of the overall impact of air pollution because of non­inclusion of the diseases for which the evidence is emerging but not fully established yet.”

3 Written argument by Pinky Anand, ASG on behalf of Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, Department of Heavy Industry, in Miscellaneous Application 567 of 2016 in the matter of Original Application 95 of 2014, Vardhaman Kaushik v Union of India, National Green Tribunal, New Delhi.

4 Oral testimony of Pinky Anand before the Chairperson Bench, 31 May 2016 in Miscellaneous Application 567 of 2016 in the matter of Original Application 95 of 2014, Vardhaman Kaushik v Union of India, National Green Tribunal, New Delhi.

5 MoEFCC Affidavit in Writ Petition (Civil) 13029 of 1985, Supreme Court of India, filed on 26 April 2017.

6 Miscellaneous Application 567 of 2016, filed by Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises in Original Application 95 of 2014, National Green Tribunal judgment dated 14 September. The Supreme Court in M C Mehta v Union of India and Others (2002) had already accepted IERs as grounds for air-pollution abatement. It rejected the MoEFCC’s specific denial of these in the same case on 26 October 2017, with Justice Lokur stating, “This is a completely disgusting state of affairs and this is hardly the way in which the Ministry ought to function if it is expected to perform its duties sincerely, honestly and with dedication.”

7 This argument differs from, but parallels, Negi’s (2017) discussion of how the scientific pursuit of air pollution’s exact cause leads to “the fragmentation of atmospheres in cities,” allowing uncertainty to reign, and making Delhi’s collective crisis less actionable.


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Cases Cited

Arjun Gopal and Others v The Union of India and Others (2018): Writ Petition No 728 of 2015, Supreme Court judgment dated 23 October.

M C Mehta v Union of India and Others (2002): Writ Petition No 13029 of 1985, Supreme Court judgment dated 5 April.

Satish Kumar and Others v Union of Indian and Others (2018): Original Application 56 of 2013, National Green Tribunal judgment dated 3 December.

Vardhaman Kaushik v Union of India (2016): Original Application 95 of 2014, National Green Tribunal judgment dated 18 and 20 July.

Updated On : 6th Dec, 2019


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