Science for advocacy: thinking with expert-advocates

From December 2017 to August 2018, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in Delhi convened a ten-episode public seminar series, Clearing the Air: Air Quality Regulation and Governance in India. The organisers of this seminar series are climate change, environmental, and energy policy researchers informed by challenges of coordinational capacity and committed to public outreach. They look to shift the contours of conversation around Delhi’s air from seasonal and episodic peaks to a more persistent concern throughout the year. In this series, CPR invited experts from science, advocacy and governance to speak on how they interpret the problem of air pollution for Delhi and broadly, for India. Scientists, economists, lawyers, planners, journalists, consultants, and activists interacted over a year about how to understand and intervene in this stubborn, perplexing problem.1

On 23 February 2018, an agronomist, an agricultural geneticist, and a veteran journalist were part of a conversation with a farmer from the district of Panipat in Haryana, a neighbouring state of Delhi with which it shares borders and severe air pollution. The panel was about crop residue burning, known to intensify air pollution during winter. Many farmers in Delhi’s bordering states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh burn paddy residue to clear the ground for wheat cultivation at the start of the new sowing season. The smoke crosses state boundaries and causes an uproar in national and local media. Climate change, agricultural, and energy researchers around the world are trying to figure out how to intervene. One of them is Dr. M.L. Jat, a senior cropping systems agronomist, who talked about the Happy Seeder, a tractor-mounted machine that uproots paddy residue, sows wheat, and deposits the residue back into the ground as mulch. The state government of Punjab gives subsidy on the equipment of up to 80 per cent to farm cooperatives. Dr. Jat was convinced that farmers should abandon old farming practices and embrace new ones. "What does a farmer want? A farmer wants options,” he said.

In Jat’s story, the Happy Seeder was offered to the farmers as an indigenously developed, sustainable technological solution to improve both rural and urban air. The farmer in conversation, Pritam Singh Hanjra, questioned the options. His story began with migration from Pakistan to Indian Punjab, and he reflected on the Green Revolution’s legacy of mimicking waterintensive paddy cultivation practised in the Indo-Gangetic (IG) belt that caused intense waterlogging and salinity in Punjab’s farm fields. He talked about reading textbooks published by agricultural universities of Punjab and Haiyana and experimenting to reduce water needs of paddy farming. Though not trained through conventional modes of acquiring technoscien-tific knowledge, Hanjra presented himself as an “organic scholar” in the Gramscian sense, grounded in his field experiments, driven by necessity to innovate. Jat frequently interrupted Hanjra’s story to bring out caveats in those field experiments. “I am trying to provoke him,” he explained to the audience.

But not much provocation was needed for Hanjra to articulate what he thought was the nature of the problem. “Air pollution is not only a farmer’s problem; it is humanity’s problem... Happy Seeder is not the only solution. What farmers need is a task force that prioritises the problems of farmers across India,” Hanjra reasoned. He thus tied Delhi's air to the nationwide agricultural crisis. Hanjra deftly fielded Jat’s questions, welcoming collaboration and learning with agricultural scientists in the future. Jat’s frequent interruptions, though, caused uneasiness in CPR’s seminar room, as the audience of mostly researchers and activists realised that even though equal space had been granted to the scientist and the farmer, it had done little to flatten the hierarchy between them. At one point, someone from the audience asked Dr. Jat, "Why don’t you let him speak first?”

This was not the first time we would encounter Hanjra in Delhi. When Prerna went to observe another dialogue between scientists, industry representatives, activists, and consultants, held in the conference room of the World Wildlife Fund’s Delhi office, Hanjra was in the audience. The event was organised by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a non-profit research institution. The moderator, an energy policy researcher, asked questions from the farmers in Hindi and translated their answers to the rest of the audience in English. There were a couple of participants who would most probably not have understood Hindi, one from the Swiss Development Agency and another from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis of Austria. CEEW, like CPR, advises the Indian Government on policy and receives funding from many sources—governments, non-profits, foundations, trusts, corporate philanthropy (including ExxonMobil and Shell), and multilateral development agencies. As the moderator continued to translate, one researcher in the audience raised his hand and asked, “Why don’t we have the entire discussion in Hindi? After all, who are we working for?”

In the previous chapter, we discussed how scholars writing on environmental politics in the Global South have noted the difficulties for environmental experts and advocates to include the people they speak for in decision-making and solution-finding efforts. For Delhi’s air, specifically, scholars like Baviskar (2003) and Véron (2006) have characterised prevailing advocacy as disconnected and elitist (see Chapter 4). They contend that several interventions to clean Delhi’s air have further segregated public space and life in the city. Communities pushed to the city's periphery are forced to live near landfills, power plants, waste treatment plants, industrial corridors, and transport hubs, reinforcing environmental risks.

The organisers who invited Hanjra to those meetings realise this exclusion. They are experienced advocates for environmental justice connected to national and transnational networks. They offer legal advice and consultancy to environmental movements and activists. They walk around with air monitors in their hands in toxically stressed neighbourhoods. They interact with policymakers of contrasting political affiliations. Some, like Dr. Jat, come from modest backgrounds and seek to make themselves useful to public causes. In the absence of a full-fledged dismantling of power and hierarchy, increasingly, they are the only people in the room with a thought to question the status quo.

This chapter builds on the facts of exclusion but shifts analytic attention to think with the contradictions experts and advocates confront in their attempt to be seen, heard, and taken seriously—both by the state and the public. Our interlocutors are anxious to be kept in the loop and to include the public they speak for in the loop. We want to understand what aids hearing and learning. As scholars within the social sciences and humanities, we have stakes here too. If our status as English-educated and upper-caste academics privileges our engagement with air pollution advocacy, we want to use our access to these spaces to bring out the dilemmas of collaboration for advocacy. Our intervention in these spaces is to make explicit their and our stakes and commitments. We ask: What contradictions and dilemmas do our interlocutors face in their attempt to be kept in the loop and to keep the public in the loop? What styles of expertise and advocacy do they draw on? What gaps and caveats should they pay attention to?

In this chapter, we approach these questions by first locating our work theoretically within STS and the anthropology of science and technology. In the last 50 years, these fields have established that questions of science and technology are crucial to society, as much as questions of politics and power are crucial to science and technology. These disciplines teach us to grant experts and advocates intricacies of their thinking, and think with them to

Scien ce for advocacy 31 interrupt their and our own patterns of thinking and doing. We start by recognising that scientists and advocates are asking difficult questions about our present which might not bear familiar, certain, or comfortable answers. Our main argument is that when advocates assemble to bridge silos, they co-produce new spaces and communities to move beyond their otherwise varied stakes and obligations.2 We show how existing traditions of science and advocacy have worked towards effective regulation on the one hand, and greater public understanding on the other, but increasingly coalesce towards what we call “science for advocacy,” with its particular possibilities but also caveats. The first caveat is that of time. Science for regulatory purposes and public understanding require particular engagements with time. Our interlocutors, whom we call “expert-advocates,” are forced to work under compressed time. While newer institutions take advantage of these changing conditions and compressed time, the enforced urgency forecloses other institutional engagements, such as long-term public health research. The second caveat is that as our interlocutors shift attention beyond Delhi, questions and critiques of political economy enter into their articulations, even as they remain largely absent from discussions of and in Delhi. In the following section, we contextualise science/advocacy linkages of the present before describing their more recent reconfigurations.

Styles of expertise and advocacy

Placing advocacy

Scholars interested in science and technology from and in the Global South often mediate between multiple literatures and genealogies to make sense of their work and to give it legitimacy for different audiences. They might place their work within a “globalisation of STS,” displacing the centre of the study of science and technology from Europe and North America to reflect the changing global order (Dumoulin Kervran et al., 2018; Fischer, 2007). In this timeline, an objective expert, able to maintain distance from the object of inquiry, is fashioned in European enlightenment through a chasm between science and religion and the formalisation of scientific disciplines (Daston and Galison, 2007). This happens just as new nation states emerge in Europe and impose imperial domination elsewhere. A second shift occurs around World War II, when military funding for sciences and establishment of scientific organisations like the National Science Foundation (NSF) frame the basic sciences as pure and curiosity-driven. By then, scientists were already called on by the state as experts to rationalise its actions (Sismondo, 2010). A third shift occurs in the 1980s with entry of private finance and non-profits into universities and research enterprises,

establishing patent offices and intellectual property regimes to manage flows of scientific and technical knowledge (Fortun and Fortun, 2019). A parallel movement for environmental justice, open science, and software emerged in the 1970s, coalescing into what we today think of as citizen science.

STS scholars might question this timeline altogether by pointing that scholars in the Global South have been writing on science and technology for decades and not just at the moment of “globalisation of STS” (Subramaniam, 2019; Varughese, 2020). Since at least the 1970s, scholars have been commenting on the relationship of science with the state and the public. This scholarship is produced from Indian universities and research institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) erstwhile Centre for Interaction of Science and Society in 1970, which was shut down following its critique of nuclear energy during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as India’s prime minister, and reopened as the Centre for Studies in Science Policy (CSSP) in 1996. The National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS) was established in 1973 under Government of India’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

We begin this section with these institutions because our interlocutors grapple with their legacies in the here and now. They face dilemmas about when and where they should locate their environmental advocacy. They wonder how to build on legacies of environmentalism and public scholarship in India while responding to transnational conditions. The people we write about are located in institutions like the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), CPR, the IITs, state and private universities, non-profits, and consultancies. They keep track of what’s happening in conversations elsewhere and frequently travel to air pollution and environmental conferences around the world. They not only talk about India’s and Delhi's air, but they also talk about the air in Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, Los Angeles, Berlin, Mexico City, and Nairobi.

How do we characterise this community of practice and the kind of thinking and public work it does? Instead of talking separately about experts and advocates, we talk about ‘expert-advocates’ to resist the genealogies that labelling someone as expert or advocate alone would signify. Our interlocutors are not just scientists or those trained professionally in technoscience, but have followed technoscience as it developed in India and elsewhere through different paths. They have learned to communicate and translate their expertise across silos. Therefore, the first step towards characterising these communities is to write about how legacies of environmentalism and public scholarship influence expert-advocates in the present. We borrow the microbiologist and historian of science Ludwik Fleck's ([1935] 1979)

Science for advocacy 33 concept of “thought style” to talk about how expert-advocates communicate their knowledge.3 Fleck argued that these communication events disrupt usual ways of knowing and doing as they call on the expert to adopt a distanced view of their own professionalisation and think about the relevance of what they do. We think with Fleck to write about the legacy of transnational conditions of doing science and technology. We find that expertadvocates contend with two different thought styles—science for regulation and science for public understanding. At their intersection, a new style is being worked out—a science for advocacy.

Science for regulation

In 2019, after expert-advocates had spent years talking about the necessity of a pan-India governance mechanism for air pollution, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) circulated the National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) (MoEFFCC, 2019) after a round of public consultations. NCAP proposes an extensive urban and rural monitoring network, listing 102 cities which have consistently violated annual National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), for taking priority action (further details in Chapter 4). It has 42 action points across different domains for improving air quality—vehicular transport, dust, biomass burning, industrial and construction sources. Two statements in the NCAP pique our interest:

While developing and implementing technologies, it is of paramount importance that the technology suits the Indian scenario with respect to short- and long-term ecological and environment impacts, social infrastructure, cultural ethos, and characteristics of the Indian economy.


While there is no denial on serious health implications, attributing one to one correlation and number of deaths due to air pollution needs to be further investigated and supported by indigenous studies. More authentic Indian data and studies may further strengthen our efforts and public participation in improving the air quality.


The call for more Indian data, technology, and studies is usually received as an irrational response to an already-existing global consensus (led by the World Health Organization and Health Effects Institute, for example) that air pollution undoubtedly kills. Do we really need more air quality data from various scales, of various pollutants, and exposure curves fromvarious types of bodies and populations to tell us that people are dying at an alarming rate?

Expert-advocates find this ridiculous. Four comprehensive source apportionment studies exist for Delhi (Dubash and Guttikunda, 2018). Among them is the highly-cited IIT Kanpur report, after which dust control became a top policy priority (IIT Kanpur, 2016). These apportionment studies tell us what sectors and sources pollute the most, how much, and when. They agree that the air in the winters is worse. All point to high contribution of power plants, vehicular emissions, biomass/waste burning (including stubble), construction activities, and diesel generator sets, only varying by degrees in their estimations. A 2018 report published in The Lancet authored by 80 transnational collaborators from across disciplinary and institutional locations demonstrated beyond doubt the adverse health impacts of air pollution, even showing which states are affected more (the poorer ones, of course).

Yet, each time a central government minister makes some version of the “lack of evidence” argument to the media, expert-advocates respond with even more evidence while they continue to organise ever-larger advocacy networks. These collaborations look to produce, analyse, and rally colossal amounts of data to satisfy the “indigenous studies” benchmark. They include the “Atmospheric Pollution and Human Health in an Indian Megacity” programme, jointly funded by UK research agencies and the Indian Government. Enrolling 42 organisations with research teams led by over 100 scientists, this mega project will, over 4 years, tell policymakers what pollutes, how much it pollutes, where it pollutes, and who it pollutes. Other projects—some India-wide (Gordon et al., 2018), some focused on different Indian cities (Guttikunda et al., 2019)—are also underway to identify and quantify pollution and associated health effects. Documents published by these collaborations acknowledge that we need large-scale epidemiological studies that use a combination of monitoring, satellite, and personal exposure data for long-term health effects.

Delhi’s expert-advocates are thus caught in a difficult position—they contend that enough is already known about the problem, but have to respond to the Indian Government’s denials by organising themselves for new research. Their thought style is shaped by a global legacy of air pollution science that has established long-term, place-specific, cohort-based epidemiological studies as the threshold for arriving at air quality standards and air quality governance. The ‘Harvard Six Cities Study’ started in 1974 by a group of professors based at the Harvard School of Public Health sampled around 8,000 adults and 14,000 children controlled for smoking and age in six US cities for 16 years, publishing the results in 1993. It surmised that residents lost 2 years of their lives in cities heavily affected by air pollution, which amounted to massive losses in a large population

(Dockery et al., 1993). The study was met with ferocious contestation from industry, which alleged a lack of transparency because participants’ clinical data were kept confidential (Fuller, 2019). The results were replicated in the 2000s and found to be consistent with even more locations. With the Harvard study, particulate matter became a pollutant of public concern (Grant, 2012).

These global conversations on particulate matter and environmental conferences like Stockholm, Rio, and Aarhus, influence air pollution governance in India. Even in the absence of the Six Cities type of study, air quality standards were notified for the first time in India in 1982, alongside other legal protections like the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, Water Act of 1974, Air Act of 1981, and the Environment Protection Act of 1986. Unlike nuclear, space, and meteorological sciences, where security concerns have determined public involvement with science (Abraham, 1999; Phalkey, 2013; Dash, 2020), these concerns have not, until recently, been observed in the air pollution sciences. The NCAP, however, seeks to control air pollution science, arguing for centralisation of monitoring data and its processing (MoEFCC, 2019). It further advises the media to not report “perplexing statistics ... to create an ambiguous public perception” (p56) and calls for sensitisation of media when reporting international studies.

When the goal of expansion of air pollution monitoring endeavours in India is read together with calls for indigenous studies, it points to a gap between lofty aims and a reality that does not seem to match. Observers frequently express frustration with the regulatory science conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs), citing lack of infrastructural and resource capacities, the move towards centralisation and privatisation is argued to bring transparency, accountability, and better governance. It aims to position India as a self-sufficient, thriving nation that does need not rely on external expertise. The attempt towards this end in Indian science and technology is not new, seen previously in biotechnology (Sunder Rajan, 2006), telecommunications (Irani, 2015) and water provisioning (Anand, 2015).

With the calls for indigenous data, air quality monitoring is now becoming pivotal in regulatory science. Different types of monitoring strategies privilege different types of interventions, and accordingly, different institutional contexts and scientific disciplines. Ambient monitoring helps to make sense of urban air and privileges chemists, physicians, meteorologists, and atmospheric scientists. Satellite monitoring helps to make sense of regional and national air and privileges remote sensing and GIS-based sciences. Personal exposure monitoring helps to make sense of individual and aggregated bodies and the microenvironments they reside and move about in.

The faith in monitoring as the golden standard for air pollution regulation remains salient in all these strategies. Air quality data modelling is used to fill in the gaps when monitoring is not deemed sufficient, and even then, expert-advocates talk about more monitoring. When they talk about how much data is enough and good, they never talk about these different strategies separately. Everything is needed. In interdisciplinary science collaborations, different monitoring strategies can lead to differences over which type of data is perceived appropriate for policy (Garnett, 2017). For Delhi, we have noticed that expert-advocates call for more monitoring, arguing that other types of data complement monitoring data. Atmospheric scientist and air quality data modeller Sarath Guttikunda emphasized this in the first episode of the CPR seminar series on Delhi’s air pollution as well. If the NCAP calls for more monitoring, it is because expert-advocates call for more monitoring. All our interlocutors mentioned the virtues of monitoring for air quality regulation, public outreach, and for advocacy.

As many research networks look to fill blindspots of monitoring, and millions of dollars are being spent to buy regulatory-grade monitors for urban and rural India, the conversation is shifting to how we do not know what to do with all the data being generated. Anthropologist Timothy Choy notes that knowing more about air does not necessarily produce clearer understanding, but "yields a sensation of incomplete knowledge, a vertiginous sense that there is always something in excess of the explanation” (Choy, 2010, p4). In keeping with Choy’s observation, Anumita Roychowdury of CSE, an eminent advocate of air pollution interventions in Delhi since the 1990s, wonders (2020):

Even after massive investments in 38 real-time monitoring stations .. . Delhi is still guessing if its pollution is rising or falling.

Real-time monitors that are supposed to account for transparency according to NCAP are not even considered for regulatory purposes, because they do not meet the legal requirements for compliance reporting (Somvanshi and Roychowdhury, 2020). While there is a very real danger that demand for more data for regulatory purposes would cause expert-advocates to nm on a never-ending "data treadmill” (Shapiro et al., 2017), two shifts that we outline in this section remark on the possibility of air quality data for public action. First, the proposed centralisation and privatisation of regulatory air quality data with demand for indigenous epidemiological studies signals that contesting interpretations of air quality data will eventually arise. Second, the virtue associated with the act of collecting air quality data invites more people than before to engage in air pollution advocacy. Both these shifts become crucial for our expert-advocates when they mobilise an air pollution science for public understanding.

Science for public understanding

Expert-advocates make a distinction between data for different ends. They want to make the methods and results of regulatory air quality monitoring activities and source apportionment studies available for the public. They want to translate the results of international and national studies for wider dissemination. There is an expectation that with public outreach through the translation of science, enough public pressure will be created to make air pollution an electoral issue. Some think that this has already happened for Delhi, counting the list of visible air pollution interventions by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), such as the oddeven, which showed political commitment towards improving air quality (Ghosh and Harish. 2019).

The expectation that the translation of regulatory science creates an electoral demand for air quality is not without precedent either. In the 1990s, when changes to Delhi’s fuel policy were being debated in the Supreme Court, government officials at various points articulated a lack of public pressure for not implementing extant regulatory standards (Sharma and Roychowdhury, 1996). Environmental advocates back then faced a similar challenge of amassing scientific evidence and translating it to the public. They were influenced by industrial disasters abroad, like Chernobyl, and those at home, like Bhopal and Shriram oleum gas leak, which changed environmental governance globally so that these disasters could be avoided elsewhere (Fortun, 2001). A style of environmental advocacy emerged during the late twentieth century in India, when engineers and business graduates realised the need to communicate the risks of chemical hazards and toxicities to the lay public. The organisations they set up were different from others organised around wildlife and forest protection or resistance to large infrastructure projects, in that their vision was to create community capacity for science. Three of these were Delhi-based: Toxics Link, Hazards Centre, and CSE. CSE was founded in 1980 by Anil Agarwal, a mechanical engineer from IIT Kanpur and a science journalist. He was joined by Sunita Narain, a student leader from Kalpvriksh. An early CSE communication was the First Citizens ’Report in 1982, inspired by a brief “state of environment” report in Penang, Malaysia (Guha, 2002). Toxics Link was founded in 1994 by Ravi Agarwal, a communications engineer and MBA graduate. Its first report in 1998 was about food adulteration. The Hazards Centre was founded in 1997 by Dunu Roy, a chemical engineer from IIT Bombay, and published its first report on air pollution in Uttar Pradesh in 1997. Together, these organisations have published hundreds of reports and working papers using independent scientific research and drawing on research from elsewhere. The founders of these organisations have served on science and technology committees of various governments to advocate for a safer, healthier environment.

Of these three organisations, CSE emerged as the most prominent advocate around air pollution in the late 1990s and early 2000s, even though the other two continued to produce their own reports and pamphlets. CSE employed various strategies to that effect. Its anti-diesel campaigns called industrialist Rahul Bajaj “environmental criminal no. 1” and termed the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) the “Indian Council for state-sponsored promotion of slow murder.” It lobbied with politicians and bureaucrats to transform India’s fuel policy and Delhi’s transportation policy. Scientific debates raged between CSE, the judiciary, and governments, as documented by Awadhendhra Sharan (2014). Anil Agarwal joined the bureaucrat Bhure Lal with representatives from government and industry to form the Environmental Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority in 1998 under the Supreme Court’s directive to arrive at scientific consensus. What differentiated CSE from Toxics Link and Hazards Centre in our observations is that it pushed for judicial intervention through gathering technoscientific expertise within the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA). Whereas Hazards Centre continued to report about livelihoods in Delhi’s physical and social peripheries and Toxics Link about chemical toxicities in the same areas, the CSE agenda at the time was to push for cleaner air through reforming transportation through the judiciary. It spoke little about the consequences of those interventions. Guha (2002) notes that as CSE grew, published, and campaigned, it maintained a distance from other campaigns of social and environmental justice at the time, especially the anti-dam Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). With help from judiciary and similarly inclined bureaucrats like Bhure Lal, CSE continued to contribute significantly to air pollution management through the EPCA, for instance, with the 2017 Comprehensive Action Plan for Air Pollution Control in Delhi and National Capital Region (NCR).

CSE works closely with industries to advocate for monitoring of industrial emissions, publishing manuals for installing and operating Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems (CEMS). One of us (Prerna) was present at the CSE-organised CEMS India Conference in 2017 held at the Leela Hotel, where the manual was released in collaboration with the Swedish Environment Protection Agency and the West Bengal Pollution Control Board. Representatives from non-profits, consultancies, governments, and industry spoke in turns about the necessity of monitoring industrial emissions, and an exhibition on the latest monitoring technologies, led by national and international companies, bustled with promise in an adjacent exhibition hall. This style of environmental advocacy, presenting primarily as a

Science for advocacy 39 technoscientific matter of concern, has helped the CSE to advocate beyond political affiliations.

When expert-advocates today do science communications and outreach work, they contend with this style. The impulse remains to communicate scientific research, but with calls for indigenous studies by the Indian Government, mentioned earlier, the questions are now framed in terms of data that are easily accessible to the public. A large endeavour of expertadvocates is to communicate existing research. In March 2019, one of us (Prerna) attended a public workshop at IIT Delhi which taught nonexperts how to process, analyse, and visualise air pollution data. Sarath Guttikunda has published primers on air pollution monitoring, source apportionments, and air quality management on his website “Urban Emissions” so that bureaucrats, policymakers, urban planners, activists, and other actors can learn technoscientific vocabularies and techniques. Pallavi Pant, of the Health Effects Institute (that now has ownership of the Harvard Six Cities Study data), maintains an extensive database of air pollution research and journalism on the blog “Air Quality in India,” where she also interviews scholars, activists, and entrepreneurs associated with India’s air pollution.

A related endeavour is to clean and present air quality data in attractive and easily understood formats. OpenAQ is a global platform where atmospheric scientists and engineers extract real-time government monitoring data and store it so that they become “historical data.” These data can be accessed by anyone, though they are most of use to various app developers, allowing construction of further digital media. A popular example is Smokey, an air quality chat-bot in the form of a spectacled owl. Smokey replies instantaneously on Twitter and Facebook; needing only one’s location, it presents the user with real-time data derived from OpenAQ, explains the pollutant of concern, and even offers links to buy products to protect oneself—and it does so in several languages. Another way to access monitoring data is to buy one of several sensors on the market. Indeed, using readily available low-cost sensors, many of Delhi’s residents now monitor their breathing zones—their bedrooms, kitchens, cars, and officers—to guide decisions from exercising outdoors to using purifying technologies, as we further detail in Chapter 5. These sensors form alternative monitoring infrastructures which can contest government monitoring data, especially amidst suspicions of manipulation of air quality data during peak-pollution episodes, such as Diwali or the annual winter smog.

This style of framing environmental advocacy as questions of data accessibility and availability obviously excludes those who cannot interpret technoscientific data (mostly in English). But this framing has also resulted inan expansive notion of what that data could be and where it should come from. Take this quote from Pant:

There is the science part, and then there is the other part of how we bring this data to public, how do we make it easily available ... People can now buy sensors and see that the air pollution is really high and they can question the government... If I talk to people on [the] road about air pollution, they don’t want to know about what model I used, how many variables are in that model, how you analysed the sample. What they want to know is how what they’re doing is affecting their everyday live[s] and to embed air pollution in everyday experiences. If you remove the scientific terminology and start talking to people, a lot of people have noticed what causes air pollution and what are the problems.

(Personal communication, 2017)

Pant points us to how low-cost sensors have become important to establish air pollution as a social concern. She intervenes in a popular narrative that residents of Delhi don't know and don’t care about pollution by pointing to an absence of the kind of data that is missing from discussions: qualitative and textured data from people’s everyday lives. Christa Hasenkopf, a founder of OpenAQ agrees:

You can spend years developing the perfect data format. But our main thing was getting the data out there and see how people would use it. Because you cannot always anticipate how people will be using the system or meeting their data requirements . . . Air inequality is a term that our community came up with. We did a workshop in Sarajevo, Bosnia, a highly-polluted place in the winter, in terms of PM2.5. It was not data-based, but involved connecting people. They decided to write a community statement. And one of the participants in that workshop presented it to the Bosnian Parliament. It's not necessarily about the open data, but getting a group of people together to work nominally around the data in our platform and taking it into a completely different direction and still fight air inequality. To me, that was a win.

(Personal communication, 2017)

Hasenkopf, like Pant, sees the promise of open data to make air pollution a public concern. She too uses an expansive notion of data to foster a community to advocate for air quality. Scholars have commented before on the limitations of enumerative practices for environmental advocacy,

Scien ce for advocacy 41 arguing that they lead to a “deficit model’’ that proceeds from assuming a lack of understanding on part of the non-expert public, and sets up knowledge transfer as the solution (Bickerstaff, 2004; Cuppies, 2009; Dalborne and Galusky, 2011). We acknowledge these legacies of citizen science, including in India (Varughese, 2020). But responding to the call for contextualising citizen science research (Kimura and Kinchy, 2016), we think it is important to acknowledge that framing questions around data in the expansive way Pant and Hasenkopf do, allows for expanded deliberation with air pollution advocacy instead of it being centred around a few key figures or organisations. Both Pant and Hasenkopf do not see the public as lacking understanding, but are finding ways to connect existing information and capacities. We read these instances as “critical data practices” (Fortun et al., 2016), where advocates identify science for social concern and connect information that allows for new forms of advocacy to emerge.

Up to this point, we have noted two thought styles our expert-advocates contend with: science for regulation, and science for public understanding. Both are shaped by environmental advocacy and science at the global, national, and urban scales. Both are restricted and activated by the possibilities of air quality data. We now mm to the dilemmas expert-advocates face when these thought styles intersect.

Science for advocacy

As shown earlier, with the state's persistent denialism and the increasingly felt need to expand the domain of science beyond its narrowly defined epis-temic conununity, there is the emergence of the expert-advocate. We now expand on the second part of this concept. Advocacy implies connecting with both the state and the public. Expert-advocates therefore contend with the following question: What kind of science, and data, are needed for advocacy? In this section, we call this new discursive space “science for advocacy.” Our intervention is to show the dilemmas and caveats of this space that expert-advocates may keep in mind as they think through this question. We outline two dilemmas and their attendant caveats. First, contending with demands for science for regulation and science for public understanding produces a conflict of time. As expert-advocates acknowledge the need for long-term epidemiological studies for regulatory purposes, they also advocate for low-cost ambient and personal monitoring for public understanding of air pollution. Second, conversations on Delhi’s air undoubtedly shift attention to air elsewhere, but the coordinates of science for advocacy stick stubbornly to Delhi.

Time for science, time for advocacy

Expert-advocates contend often that Delhi, and India, has very little time to clean its air. At one of CPR’s seminars, Anumita Roychowdhury of CSE impressed this idea of time upon us: “We don’t have 60 years, we have three.” Phrases for interventions like low-hanging fruits, leapfrogging, realtime, and time-bound targets inform deliberations. Their descriptors for air are also temporal—air in the winters is worse, and annual air quality trends are better for regulatory purposes than daily air quality. CSE’s report The Leapfrog Factor (Roychowdhury et al., 2006) asserts that air pollution in Asian cities cannot wait for science to catch up. What worked for Delhi in the 1990s was leapfrogging air quality and fuel standards. Expert-advocates wish to script a fresh success story of cleaning Delhi’s air, built on the strongly held belief that the environment cannot be sacrificed at the altar of development.

In this temporal horizon of science for advocacy, organisations like CPR, CEEW, Harvard-IFMR's Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) Delhi, Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago Center in Delhi (EPIC-India) organise their air pollution advocacy events in ways that ensure a year-round buzz on air. As we mentioned in this chapter’s introduction, this was the intention of CPR’s ten-episode seminar series. The dilemmas of time allow these organisations to advocate for specific policy interventions. EPIC’s lead researcher Michael Greenstone’s team built the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), which aims to let people know when air quality is worst and when it is not advisable to go out and breathe. AQLI’s website asks: “How much longer would you live if you breathed clean air?” When we zoom into the website’s map for Delhi, it tells us that we could live a decade longer if Delhi’s air met WHO guidelines for PM2.5. The framing of advocacy in terms of life expectancy maintains the concern around dying due to air pollution, which is a powerful framing, with the potential to impact the audience deeply. It also allows expert-advocates to call for policy interventions that respond to urgency with innovation. EPoD, along with EPIC and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), started the world’s first emissions trading scheme for particulate pollution in the state of Gujarat.

As mentioned earlier, collaborations with industries and non-profits associated with private universities in the US point to a new direction in which science for advocacy is moving in response to frustration with older styles of advocacy and governance. The dilemma of time is resolved through the innovatory promise of market interventions, even though scholars have criticised cap-and-trade mechanisms for reinforcing existing inequalities. Working with industry and organisations is not new for science and

Scien ce for advocacy 43 technology in India, as we have mentioned earlier. The Happy Seeder, which we mentioned at the start of the chapter, was also developed as a non-profit-industrial collaboration. The Nature Conservancy, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), the University of Minnesota, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) worked to create an alternative to crop residue burning for Indian farmers. But the combination of framing science for advocacy under life expectancy and market interventions pushes the conversation in a specific direction, which other groups and alliances find difficult to keep up with.

The story of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) in these changing conditions speaks of the caveats we should keep in mind. Under the public-private partnership model in research, PHFI served as India’s largest public health advocacy group and provided technical assistance to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) for its immunisation programmes. One of its concerted efforts was an anti-tobacco campaign, for which it was alleged to have used foreign funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to lobby with politicians and media groups. This was considered a violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) by the government, and PHFI's license to receive foreign funding was cancelled along with 20,000 other organisations like Greenpeace India (Sharma, 2017). Many transnational research collaborations were frozen immediately.

PHFI is one of the few organisations which framed air pollution explicitly as a matter of environmental justice. A report from the PHFI (2017) mentions that though air pollution is thought to affect all equally, vulnerability is, in reality, unevenly distributed. The class aspect is clear in their work: “urban upper-middle classes were better equipped in knowledge and resources to seek solutions to poor air quality, in comparison to urban poorclasses” (Ibid., p40). It cites a social science study (Ramaswami et al., 2016) which sun-eyed three Delhi neighbourhoods with different socioeconomic profiles and interviewed waste handlers, showing that they were quite aware of health risks, but it was low on their priorities. It builds on a report by MoH and FW (2015) to argue that the urban poor are doubly burdened by ambient and household air pollution. Instead of outlawing certain practices, the report proposes affordable distribution of gas and electricity. Similarly, it does not blame rural households for not adopting improved cook-stoves (even though that is a decades-long intervention), offering alternative explanations for non-adoption. This is in sharp contrast with the influential IIT Kanpur report cited earlier that framed farmers as indulging in wasteful practices that ought to be banned outright (p278). The way emerging institutional arrangements that limit how expansively air quality data, and airpollution science, are to be understood are therefore issues that expert-advocates must think through.

Place matters

The second dilemma expert-advocates face is in placing science for advocacy. While we have written elsewhere about the questions of scale (Negi and Srigyan, forthcoming) around Delhi’s air—framing it as simultaneously a national, regional (IG plains), and transboundaiy concern aided by different monitoring and governance strategies—we use this section to signal other shifts: the rise of the big urban sciences and a move towards talking about the mining districts of central India. The first shift simultaneously places Delhi within a geography of megacities troubled by air pollution and talks about smaller “tier II and III” cities which continue to violate air quality standards. The second shift is newer, a placeholder for talking about questions of political economy and environmental injustice presently missing from conversations on Delhi’s air.

UrbanEmissions leads the Air Pollution Knowledge Assessment (APnA) city programme, where information about emissions, meteorology, and source-specific pollutant concentrations for about 60 cities has been published as a series of attractive pamphlets; the first cluster released in 2017 and the second in 2019. Its methodology involves making a massive publicly accessible database from disparate data sources to form an emissions inventory, creating a spatial model of air pollution using meteorological models for climate variables and dispersion models for concentration, and provides a mechanism for air quality management according to sources and seasons (Guttikunda et al., 2019). The results and recommendations from this enterprise are disseminated as easy-to-read pamphlets where clusters of towns make “airsheds” (see Chapter 4). In towns where ambient air quality monitoring has not yet reached or reached only sporadically, APnA is an inspirational example of a critical data practice, bridging the gap between the “different airs of air pollution science” (Garnett, 2020). Guttikunda’s mobility in advocacy circles ensures that each of the 60 APnA case studies also circulates.

We discuss in the following chapters about how the rise of big data under the framework for smart cities has worked to advocate for airshed-based style of air pollution governance, but we note here that one effect is to see the urban as a space for experimentation. This is tied to the success stories told by expert-advocates of earlier interventions to clean Delhi’s air and to the odd-even “experiments” undertaken by AAP government in 2016, but differs in that the scale is not Delhi alone but the urban with its attendant demography and complexity. Scholars have written about urban living

Science for advocacy 45 laboratories (ULLs) in Europe serving as civic platforms to facilitate sustainability transitions and promising openness actually have ambiguous relationships with both (Bulkeley et al., 2018). As in the case of India’s hackathon spaces (Irani, 2015), experimentation, rather than translating results of experiments into environmental education, remains the primary motive. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in 2020, particulate matter dropped by around 50 per cent as transportation and industry halted in Delhi (Mahato et al., 2020), and we observed a flurry of activity on social media calling the lockdown an experiment in improving air quality (discussed in greater detail in the Postscript). Meanwhile, a migrant exodus from Delhi was underway towards those tier II and III cities, and into the rural areas of India.

The air quality in places where these migrants were relocating to is not held by expert-advocates to be much better either. The NCAP in fact advocates for establishing a rural air quality network. In our conversations with expert-advocates and our participation in events organised by them, the rural areas of India and the mining districts of central India emerge as new centres where science for advocacy should pay attention to. Ronak Sutaria, founder of Respirer Living Sciences and a participant in conversations around urban sciences, says:

We are working in Singrauli and Korba. If you go to the Atmos [discussed in Chapter 5] map, you will see some monitoring there. These are our very critically polluted areas. We are working with absolutely on-the-ground organisations there. They don’t have a high-profile website or visibility, but they do a lot of work on the ground.

(Personal communication, 2017)

Sundeep Kumar, coordinator of the Healthy City Alliance (HCA),4 an umbrella organisation that has recently emerged to tackle air pollution advocacy at various scales, discusses the Alliance’s work beyond Delhi:

The air in Singrauli, Korba, Dhanbad is also polluted. If we did not have people or organisations who are already working there, I would seek people doing similar work and get them to be a part of [the] collective . . . There might be ideas coming out from Singrauli or Korba. On a meta-level, poor neighbourhoods in Delhi would be Korba from an India point-of view. It expands the base because earlier you would only talk about people who are working in the mines. But now you’re talking about someone who’s living in Raipur, which is far away from Korba.

(Personal communication, 2018)

We welcome the move towards shifting the coordinates of conversation towards these areas, but the styles and dilemmas of advocacy we have written about so far make us cautious. Both Sutaria and Kumar acknowledge working with local organisations, but due to existing distance from allying itself explicitly with questions of environmental and social justice and changing conditions of doing science and technology in India, how would existing grassroots advocacy in these areas transform? Further, while Korba and Singrauli allow for a critique of state- and corporate-led enterprises that have caused adverse health effects, they cannot stand-in for similar analysis of poorer neighbourhoods of Delhi, especially as these neighbourhoods have been partly created by earlier interventions to push industries and polluting facilities to Delhi’s peripheries. We find that though science for advocacy in Delhi has shifted attention to other scales that allow for critique of political economy, it so far does not engage enough with peripheral spaces and livelihoods of Delhi itself.


Air as a fractured condition for breathing and existence sometimes causes advocates and scholars to imagine a future where air would be once again a shared condition of life. Our reading of science for advocacy around Delhi’s air takes us instead in an opposite direction. The dilemmas of time and place that characterise science for advocacy craft a distance from critique of political economy and justice in Delhi, even as they facilitate these conversations beyond Delhi. We call for an analysis of new institutional contexts that take advantage of these dilemmas, such as how changing conditions of science and technology have made it difficult to articulate science for advocacy along explicit political lines. Our interlocutors, for instance, would do well to bring into conversation other expert-advocates who have, for long, taken seriously the questions of livelihoods and residents of Delhi’s peripheries that earlier styles of advocacy did not sufficiently engage with. Science for advocacy calls for a sustained engagement with existing movements for environmental and social justice. How might such engagements be facilitated?

We elaborate on two tactics in our Postscript—slowness and carefulness—that air pollution advocacy in general could benefit from. We now signal those tactics here. When Hanjra spoke in the CPR seminar room, it opened a collaborative moment. His embodied practice of working and experimenting in the farm collided with Jat’s understanding of agriculture and productivity. But friction need not be unproductive. Both had invested years in their research and came from locations beyond Delhi to intervene in conversations on Delhi's air pollution. Both had

Science for advocacy 47 experienced uncertainties and failures in their science and advocacy, as well as successes beyond their personal spaces. Working at that collaborative moment means talking frankly about the relations of political economy between them that made it possible for them to be seated together in CPR’s seminar room. It means asking questions that would lead either party to acknowledge uncertainty and partial knowledge, rather than placing them as antagonistic actors. Being careful partly means creating space for these older questions of political economy: of class, caste, and gender.


  • 1 The recordings of the seminar series are available at the website for the Centre for Policy Research.
  • 2 Kim Fortun (2001) writes about the contradictory obligations that advocates experienced after the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, calling communities of people who come together (or not) within a specific moment to speak on the disaster’s aftermath as “enunciatory communities.” They are different from stakeholders, as they might not agree what is an appropriate matter for concern. They are also different from epistemic communities, because they are less bound by disciplinary allegiances or faithfulness to one form of expertise. The heterogeneous communities we describe in this chapter are similar to Fortun’s enunciatory communities, but are different because they form in response to slower disasters (air pollution in our case) and require new ways of responding in time.
  • 3 As cited in Lowy (2016), Fleck defined thought style as “a set of findings meanders through the community; becoming polished, transformed, reinforced or attenuated, while influencing other findings, concept formation, opinions and habits of thought.”
  • 4 Both the person’s and organisation’s names have been anonymised.


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