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The weekend read: decolonising air pollution science

And the ever present danger of environmental action being used to quash democracy. In conversation with Rohit Negi

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Lou Del Bello

Nov 29 2020

7 mins read

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A view of downtown Delhi - Image credit: Pixabay

We treat air pollution as an eminently scientific problem. We try to measure it, abate it, some have even suggested taking inspiration from this year’s lockdown and shutting down whatever source is responsible for the latest spike in toxic chemicals. But what if by trying to capture air pollution in numbers we forgot about its deeply political nature? And what if research from richer, more visible institutions across the developed world ended up filling this void and rewriting this piece of Indian history?

Earlier this month Rohit Negi, Associate Professor of Urban Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, wrote about Indian scientists’ reaction to yet another study about air pollution in India, with no Indian authors. I asked him to expand on what it means to ‘decolonise’ science and why we need to stay vigilant to the ever present danger of environmental action being used to quash democracy.

Lights On - Why did air pollution scientists start to think about colonialism in their field?

Rohit Negi - To hear researchers talk about colonialism in the context of air pollution was a revelation to me. These are fairly common debates now in humanities and social sciences, but it was interesting to find that scientists are thinking about these things, too. So we asked them what they meant by this and what they intended to do. And we heard a lot of questions about who is generating knowledge. For example, if you're writing about pollution in India, where are you writing from? Your epistemic location [where your knowledge comes from] matters.

Help us understand what this means in practice...

Partly, it's a question of representation: crediting the data you use, crediting work, crediting the local knowledge that informed your study. Partly, it is also a matter of what kinds of questions get asked. For instance, how engaged are you with the questions that are emerging or that are being discussed on the ground among policymakers, advocates, activists? Because very often, the questions that are addressed in a lot of the literature are disconnected from real life.

Why is it important that local researchers are represented? What kind of questions would they ask that wouldn’t be asked by someone who is studying the same subject in the US or is some other corner of the planet?

Sometimes this colonial argument can take us into the territory of identity politics and I want to distance myself from that. First of all, it's not so much a question of where you are located physically, but rather it's a question of your epistemic location, namely what you are reading, whose work are you learning from. And are you engaged in a broader conversation around the topic you are investigating? These are the most important questions now. 

Can you think of an example from your own research on air pollution?

Last summer, we got hold of a wealth of scientific literature on Delhi from the 1950s onwards, and we found that new papers on Delhi's pollution hardly ever cite all that has gone on before. But it is important to know that already by the 1970s, for instance, we had a very good understanding of how polluted the city was. 

That information, of course, becomes richer and richer as new variables enter the picture, new laws are enacted and so on. But for example we wrote about how dust turns out to be a very old issue, there are different ways in which dust has been talked about and discussed and its relations with weather, with radiation, and all kinds of things have been measured for a long time. 

But there are also important differences. In the 1970s, and ‘80s, we found that certain localities or neighborhoods were very important to researchers. But over the past 10 years they seem to have disappeared. Now we talk about the city as a whole, about airsheds, and not so much about specific hotspots and neighbourhoods, or highly stressed communities which bear the brunt of many different hazards.

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rohit negi @rikshaa

Wish they would also see humanities/social sciences relevant to this, but that's hardly the case even though air pollution is as much about history, politics, policy, governance, and situated experiences of people as it is 'technical'.

Air Quality in India @airqualityindia

Top Indian institutes to help tackle #AirPollution in country's most affected cities https://t.co/B8vUa43aRO

October 30th 2020

7 Retweets36 Likes

Do you think this separation may be somehow related to a more globalised view of the air pollution problem, that sometimes forgets the local story?

That’s right, you can plug [the study of pollution sources] directly into a global scientific community, and it also makes science commensurable, so you can immediately compare Delhi with Beijing, while the health of those who live there is another story entirely, they have so many differences, things like demographics, nutrition and so on. 

For instance, one place you can look at is the Okhla area in southeast Delhi, where you have a landfill, a waste to energy plant and the intersection of a highway and a train line. All of these things come together in that area, which is also where many people live in slums. So you have a very vulnerable, very risky space: and again, what would it take for science to engage with such a space? Many of the new sciences that are contributing to the air pollution debate don't even require you to ever visit India to publish papers. All you need is a model that can pass the review process, and a new way of working with existing data. You can't do that in the realm of social science.

What part of Delhi’s past battles with air pollution inspires you the most? 

Take what happened in Delhi in the 1990s, which marked the rise of a new environmental advocacy in India. There are many ways through which you can make environmental claims, for example appealing to culture or traditions. But a lot of the folks who were active back then felt that they had to make arguments based on solid science. So they set up their own labs, they set up their own facilities and research centres, and it was the start of a very organic connection between people's movements and science. I think that is a good moment for us to think about once more. And to see where some of those legacies may take us today.

What change do you hope to see in the way air pollution science is made today?

I think scientists need to start thinking more about their knowledge of politics. In moments like now where you have greater authoritarianism, centralization, and a real undermining of democracy in our country, science cannot be outside of all of this. 

Some recent scientific publications on the Delhi pollution crisis keep calling for greater centralisation and stronger interventions on air pollution, and I'm sorry, but that might be better for air, but that is going to be disastrous in the larger political context. Air pollution interventions have been used in the past to curb people's rights, and the autonomy of provinces and state governments. And you can see this with this new commission on air pollution, that it's again not an innocent pursuit. It's a way to further centralize and use air pollution to basically discipline other states. These hard questions have to be asked by scientists too, it’s about rethinking the discipline in a more holistic way.

That’s it for today! If you want to stay in touch just reply to this email or follow me on Twitter:

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