Through the smog, darkly

Awadhendra Sharan | Updated on January 24, 2018
Danger ahead In Delhi, the average Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 — extremely small particles that get absorbed by the lungs — is thrice the national standard. Photo: V. V. Krishnan

Danger ahead In Delhi, the average Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 — extremely small particles that get absorbed by the lungs — is thrice the national standard. Photo: V. V. Krishnan   -  The Hindu


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With the world’s most toxic air, Delhi struggles to breathe. Although its challenges are many, going forward, the city must learn a few basic lessons from the past

The summer of 1857 is well-etched in the Indian psyche as the summer of revolt, of a mutiny against the British. Earlier that year, however, there was a smaller initiative that bears recollection — for it speaks of an unfinished agenda of the making of the modern Indian nation-state.

Through an Act of the government passed in February 1857, the Oriental Gas Company, incorporated as a joint-stock company in England, was permitted to set up operations to supply gas to the city of Calcutta for street lighting. Five years later, a similar Act was passed for Bombay. Interestingly, nearly a third of the clauses of the said Acts pertained to the risks of water pollution and the care that the gas companies needed to take to prevent this. One other clause referred to the possibility of a gas leak, polluting the air. Soon after, in 1862, a more elaborate Act was passed, this time addressing the smoke nuisance in Calcutta directly. A similar Act followed a year later in Bombay.

Around the turn of the last century, aesthetic dimensions of the smoke issue came to the fore — in the promise, for instance, that the use of hydroelectric power by the mills of Bombay would make it one of the most beautiful cities of the Empire by getting rid of coal-induced smoke. Guidelines (much like now) did not remain confined to the industrial sector alone, and laws were passed to regulate traditional trades and industries that were potentially polluting and harmful. Little is heard of these Acts and regulations now, but they can offer a better perspective on our current dilemmas regarding urbanism, industrial advancement and environmental pollution.

Unholy triad

Three features are characteristic of this ever-evolving and dynamic relationship between economic growth and pollution in urban India. First, several generations of issues and practices that may be considered polluting find a synchronous presence in our cities — we struggle as much with pollution from the use of biomass in domestic settings as we do with pollution resulting from slaughterhouses, or modern transport and industry. This forces us to consider together such issues that may otherwise be distinguished — as, for instance, green and brown agendas; poverty-related matters and those related to growth and development; local, regional and global concerns; crises dealt with at the municipal level and others that call for sophisticated, technical knowledge that may be available only at the national or global scale. This simultaneity, in turn, makes our cities quite unlike the cities of Europe, America or East Asia, where such issues have been solved, leaving those cities to grapple with only one or two situations that may be urgent at any given point. Poverty-related pollution, for instance, does not have the same traction that consumption and energy use-related concerns have in Paris or Seoul. But in our urban context, they must be addressed together, even if by different means.

Second, for long we’ve been conditioned to think of pollution as an end-phenomenon, to be tackled by end-of-the-pipe technologies. This was not always the case. In an earlier era, in the first decades of the 20th century, in India as in other parts of the world, there were attempts to see the pollutants and waste in terms of inefficient use of resources. It is plausible to argue that there was little about the ‘environment’ in this mode of thinking, being focused almost entirely on economic efficiency and resource use. Equally, there was little about the unequal social and spatial distribution of environmental ills. But it did offer a way of linking the initial use of resources and technology for production and subsequent use of other technologies to deal with that which was left after productive use. Reconnecting issues of resource use, efficiency, waste and pollution — which stand, more or less, separated today — would offer an alternative to the current obsession with relocation or expulsion of polluting activities from our cities.

Third, such a re-linking of economy and environment cannot be a return to history in any simple manner; we need to consider their promise and their limitations. If one were to look at major ways in which urban environments have been shaped over the previous centuries, these would broadly be classified into two: strategies of spatial relocation and those of technological modernisation. For much of the 20th century, the idea has been to use these strategies to separate the city of work from the city of residence. At different times in history, the scale of such relocations and the ambitions regarding the possibilities of technical changes have varied. Clearly, relocating tanners in the Capital in the 1870s was neither on the same scale nor had the same statutory legal backing that is enjoyed by the industrial relocation recently ordered by the Supreme Court in keeping with the Master Plan of Delhi. Neither did the pipes and drains of the 19th century carry the urban footprint of Delhi far into the hills of Uttarakhand, as they do today. These differences over time are important, and suggest something about the political/economic contexts of their times.

Watch our step

Coping with these long-term challenges would require that we look deeper than immediate short-term solutions. This is not to deny that individuals and communities need to make use of such protective technology as is most instantly available — for a decade and more now, it has not been unusual to see traffic cops covering their mouths with masks. More recently, air purifiers have entered the market in the same way as they have proliferated in Beijing, which suffers perhaps from even more acute pollution. Parallel to this has been the flourishing industry of water purifiers, with the industry ‘maturing’ to provide for every class of household, from the richest to the poorest; and in the case of the latter, often at a relatively high price. However, something more than these household solutions is required, as pollution rarely respects spatial boundaries, and a sanitised household promises little guarantee of a safe and healthy environment in general.

What’s in crisis now is the core assumption of the modernist spatial-technical strategy — there’s little space left ‘outside’ to consign unwanted things and practices for any length of time, not to mention the ever-proliferating risks of synthetic chemicals, vehicular pollution and climate change, and of industrial wastewater returning to our dining tables through the vegetables we consume. To address these, we need to move beyond higher-powered chimneys, purifiers or spatial zoning, and instead cultivate a different sensibility regarding space and technology, make our arrangements more provisional and our interventions more reflexive or, to use an increasingly influential strain of philosophical and legal reasoning, become more precautionary. Alongside, we need to shift the burden of proving ‘no harm’ on to those who cause pollution in the first place. This has been the approach pioneered by the Supreme Court to deal with vehicular pollution in Delhi, and we would do well to consider other challenges through a similar logic. It is also important that such thinking, spelled out largely in the context of legal cases, finds echo in other discourses, influencing public policies and civic action that seek to create more liveable cities.

Awadhendra Sharan is an associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

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Published on February 20, 2015
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