ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Colonial Roots of India’s Air Pollution Crisis

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.

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Updated On : 6th Dec, 2019
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