Governance and atmospheric citizenship

I wake up one early-winter morning, and, as is the case these days, pick up my phone. Usually, I check email or Twitter first thing. But it is less than a week after Diwali, and the entire North Indian region is enveloped by thick smog. I open an air quality app on the phone. It shows that the Air Quality Index across most of the city is over 400. That’s severe. An hour later. I’m on the road listening to the radio. One of the city’s most recognised radio jockeys is beside himself. “Why are we in this mess year after year?” he asks, “Why do we let the health emergency appear every winter?” Later that morning, I read an acquaintance’s tweet on the subject: “Funny that people are having a go at Kejriwal for Delhi’s poor air. He’s doing all he can (some stuff being too populist for my liking) but he can’t do jack about the main issue—stubble burning happens in Punjab and Haryana. And their CMs don’t f***ing care. #DelhiChokes.” He adds another message on how the Odd-Even scheme is “largely for optics” since vehicular pollution is not the main cause of pollution in Delhi. I take a quick look at a website that models air pollution by source, and reply: “right now, vehicles are to account for 15-20% of the pollution; exposure for some will reduce due to faster travel times, but it’s not about Delhi as you rightly put it. Except the BJP propaganda machine is at it—just saw a WhatsApp forward from them.” That meme, forwarded to me by an urban planning graduate no less, is on point. A stock image of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal coughing is accompanied by the following message: “AAP sarkar ki kamayabi, pehle akela khansta tha, aaj poori DiUi khaans rahi hat" [AAP government’s success—he used to cough alone earlier, now entire Delhi coughs along].1

Living in Delhi is to be entangled with toxicity. The simple act of breathing in the conurbation is hazardous, and it is much worse for those who labour, cook with biofuels, and sleep in the open. As the note mentioned earlier indicates, air envelops not only our bare lives but also our political lives: opposition parties blame the government, protests call on the state to act, and election manifestos promise to clean the air. It is in this backdrop that this chapter attends to the governance of and civic engagement with air in the Delhi region. It takes up the ways in which these processes come to be, the shifting nature of popular claims for clean air, the question of who is left out from these spaces, and how the recognition of exclusion propels civil society reflection and recalibration, pushing them towards the two critical moves of translation and collaboration, even as the contours of an emergent “atmospheric citizenship” are being worked out in contemporary Delhi.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) defines environmental governance as the “rules, practices, policies and institutions that shape how humans interact with the environment.”2 In their review of environmental governance literature, Armitage et al. (2012) show how the concept has been broadened to encompass a range of institutions, norms, and practices. Scholars view environmental governance as inclusive of formal and informal rales, regulatory processes, conflict-solving mechanisms, and agents and networks at different spatial scales working broadly to “prevent, mitigate and adapt to global and local environmental change.” (Armitage et al., 2012) While early work was focused on the state and the legal-administrative contexts within which environmental change was seen to take place, scholars like Erik Swyngedouw (2005) noted the rise of “governance-beyond-the-state,” comprising of “horizontal associational networks of private (market), civil society (usually NGO), and state actors” operating within the larger context of “the rise of a neo-liberal governmental rationality and the transformation of the technologies of government” (pl991). In his work on political-economic shifts in Africa, anthropologist James Ferguson (2006) similarly described the manner in which transnational civil society groups stepped into the governance vacuum left by the neoliberal retrenchment of the state, thereby producing an institutional terrain largely devoid of accountability from below while pivoting on travelling transnational expertise. It follows that with air pollution too, there is an entire complex and path-dependent arrangement of public, private, and civil society organisations that shape the conditions within which differently situated populations breathe air. There has been a significant expansion in the number and influence of non-state agents from before when state-run scientific and regulatory institutions had a monopoly over scientific knowledge production and authority to act on concerns. In this chapter, we take up these concerns and processes. We begin by showing how two elements of governance, that is, it’s regional dimension and judicial activism, have been important to the debate, and then outline the contours of an atmospheric citizenship, which allows air to be considered as a shared but differentiated condition, and around which claims are being made for healthier environments.

Governing air

Air kisi department mei hai hi nahi! Air ka koi department hi nahi hai! Air pollution to kisi ka hai hi nahi [Air is not within any one department! There is no department for air! Air pollution is not with anyone]3

Attending to diverse institutional architectures around air pollution backs Foilman’s finding that urban environmental governance in India is characterised by a “multiplicity of agencies, overlapping jurisdictions as well as fragmented and ill-defined responsibilities” (2016, p2). At the central level, the MoEFCC is the umbrella ministry that oversees environmental protection through policy and regulatory means. The legal architecture of pollution regulation is laid down by the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981, which empowers the CPCB, aided by the SPSBs at the provincial level. The CPCB is tasked with monitoring pollution, its prevention, and enforcing standards for air quality. These agencies are, however, not empowered to impose penalties on offending parties but may only “direct the closure of an offending unit or cut off/regulate its water or power supply” (Ghosh, 2015, pl3). That authority lies with the criminal courts.

Since air pollution governance involves a phalanx of different institutions—industry, transportation, land-use planning, etc.—it is no surprise that several other govermnent departments have a stake in the issue, and their decisions have implications on it. The issue is of interest to the MoHFW, which has initiated research and action focused on the health impacts of pollution, bringing together epidemiologists, public health experts, and medical researchers. These two blocs—monitoring and regulation on the one hand, and exposure and health on the other—are largely disparate and their relations are characterised by rare interactions (Negi and Srigyan, forthcoming). Speaking of our region of interest, there is the Delhi Government, which has its own Department of Environment, whose Secretary chairs the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. At an even more fine-grained scale, municipalities and local governments are responsible for actions like waste management and road cleaning, which have direct implications on air pollution. In a city like Delhi, these areas are distributed across multiple authorities, with their own respective systems, logics, and election cycles.

An audit of the regulatory system noted the paucity of resources, absence of rewards and recognition, as well as lack of motivation within and coordination between agencies (IIM Lucknow, 2010). It is then not surprising that the boards look to limit prosecution, given the protracted nature of proceedings and their resource-intensive nature (Ghosh, 2015, pl4). Similarly, poor coordination not only means that air pollution falls through the cracks—as the opening quote suggests—but also that a lot of routine work is replicated, wasting precious time and resources. According to Siddharth Singh, energy scholar and author of The Great Smog of India, in 2015, after a major public outcry, the Delhi Government commissioned a source apportionment study that cost a lot. Singh asks:

What was the need for the study when ... on the CPCB website, for Delhi’s pollution, already a 600-page report existed? All you needed to do [was] literally google “Delhi and air pollution” and the first result on the top you click it, and that goes to [this report] which has all the sources listed.

(Personal communication, 2019)

According to another researcher who works on the epidemiology of air pollution:

Departments don’t talk to each other. The Ministry of Health doesn’t know what Ministry of Urban [Development] is doing. But these things are all related. The Ministry of Health should know what [the] Ministry of Agriculture is doing. Everyone should know everyone else’s work, so that overall development and knowledge increase.4

While the institutional architecture has, over time, been tweaked, modified, and recalibrated as it encounters new questions and challenges, the arrangements do not seem to have been thought through comprehensively with long-term concerns and the urgency of coordination in mind. Some of these issues seem to have informed the formation of the new Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) for the NCR and adjoining areas via an ordinance in October 2020. We return to the commission later. In short, the “administrative tournament,” as Singh (2018) calls it, leads to “delay and inefficiencies in implementing plans that involve action from multiple institutions” (pl80). A way forward might be to create a larger campaign or organise a movement such as the Swachh Bharat, which itself is focused on waste management, around which different agencies reflect on their own relation with and actions around air pollution. Karnad (2020) puts it eloquently: “To truly revitalise our air, we need to change how we cook, build, farm, travel, consume, and produce—bearing in mind, through it all, how we breathe.”

Governance is also impacted by shifts in the larger political economy within which pollution is being debated and acted on. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the millennial Indian growth story had been arrested, first, by the global crisis since 2008, and then the lasting consequences of demonetisation. In urban imaginaries, the erstwhile fantastic dreams of becoming the next Singapore via large-scale infrastructures have been largely replaced by mundane concerns like neighbourhood clinics, access to drinking water, and affordable electricity. In Delhi, this is linked to the rise of the AAP5 and the shift in urban politics has not escaped the local governance of air pollution. AAP is visibly involved in Delhi’s air pollution debate. One of its interventions is the vehicular rationing system called ‘odd-even’ (cars plying alternate days according to their number plates) was hailed as both radical (first of its kind in India) and progressive (attacking middleclass demand for more vehicles). The AAP government regularly mounts other visible anti-pollution campaigns, such as planting trees, using vacuum road-dust cleaners, and switching off vehicle engines at traffic signals. AAP is also represented in civil society discussions around air, as we repeatedly observed. It interacts with environmental advocacy groups in contrast to the previous era, when the civil society had to lean on the judiciary and popular media to jolt the state into action. Still, the mechanics of governance involve spaces and agencies beyond Delhi and its government, while the judiciary continues to remain an important locus of debate and action.

Regionalizing governance

Scholars have long argued that polluted air is a transboundary concern, and the atmosphere, an “international commons” (Soroos, 1991). Geography and meteorology make it impossible to contain pollution in a bounded space or to prevent toxic air from entering particular regions from afar. Governing air, therefore, requires a regional imagination and spatially flexible instruments. Many scientists and advocates we spoke to repeatedly highlighted this issue, and regretted the disproportionate emphasis on Delhi in the media and public discourse on air pollution. They were keen to point out that the IG region and other places in the country, especially with a concentration of mining activities, were faced with an equal if not worse pollution problem (see Chapter 3). Delhi, it has also been argued, is affected significantly by sources of toxicity located elsewhere. It has been shown that external sources are responsible for anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent of the load, depending on the specific pollutant, with ozone accounting for the largest external contribution (Marrapu et al., 2014, pl0629). This goes to show not only that simply relocating certain pollution sources from Delhi to its fringes is inadequate, but that regional environmental planning is required for comprehensive action. Alongside thermal power plants, a critical source of the city’s pollution is the burning of farm residue chiefly in Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, which spreads all across the IG belt during early winter. The temporality and economics of paddy cultivation have together contributed to the scale of the problem (Kumar, 2017), and despite a 2015 ban by the NGT and numerous government initiatives, harvested fields continue to be set on fire each year. The problem is compounded by the lack of meaningful interstate conversation or coordinated response, and a high level of mistrust. While acknowledging the pollution caused by agricultural fires, for instance, the Punjab Chief Minister recently called his Delhi counterpart a “shameless liar” for blaming his state alone, adding that “air pollution in the national capital [was] directly related to the rampant construction activity, widespread industrialisation and total mismanagement of the city traffic” (Indian Express, 2019), in other words, causes internal to the city.

More broadly, the growing interest in the regional dimensions of pollution has led organisations like Greenpeace India to reframe air pollution as a spatially diffuse issue, terming their campaign “Clean Air Nation.” Similarly, Urban Emissions' APnA places detailed information on pollutant concentrations for 20 cities in the public domain. The Supreme Court-mandated EPCA—now defunct after the creation of the CQAM—was tasked with working on pollution in the entire National Capital Region, rather than the city of Delhi alone, as was the case originally. The central government has also built on such an understanding of the issue to launch the NCAP in 2019. The NCAP states that “since air pollution is not a localised phenomenon, the effect is felt in cities and towns far away from the source, thus creating the need for regional-level initiatives through interstate and intercity coordination in addition to multi-sectoral synchronization.” (MoEFCC, 2019, p3) It aims to meet the air quality standards across different parts of the country through a 20-30 per cent reduction in PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations by 2024 relative to base year (i.e., 2017). To this end. it aims to strengthen monitoring capacities in medium and small towns and cities, which hitherto have been poorly served by the available monitoring infrastructures. In the next chapter, we show how this push has created the space for entrepreneurship in the low-cost monitoring sector. Here, we wish to note that NCAP envisages partnering with a wide array of non-governmental institutions to generate knowledge of air pollution—such as a National Emissions Inventory—to plan interventions and to implement them effectively. The very first point in the NCAP section on its approach, that is, its strategy to implement the plan, mentions “collaborative, multi-scale and cross-sectoral coordination between the relevant central ministries, state governments and local bodies” (Ibid., p24). It is, however, less clear on the mechanics of such an effort. In this scenario, two strategies are being discussed by engaged scholars and practitioners.

The first argues for a new, specialised, and empowered authority. These are desires to create the office of an “air-quality manager” (Bolia and Khare,

Governance and atmospheric citizenship 57 2018), preferably reporting directly to the Prime Minister. One of the main functions of this authority, it is argued, should be to oversee and coordinate efforts of involved agencies; acting in some ways like the Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Arguing that over 40 percent of India’s air pollution crosses state boundaries, the authors of a recent study (Du et al., 2020) call for a “more centralized form of environmental federalism.” Relatedly, a recent report by the Collaborative Clean Air Policy Centre (CCAPC) proposes an “Air Quality Management District” for Delhi and NCR to promote airshed-level governance of pollution. Its role “will be to understand and take into account all the major sources in the airshed and develop air quality management plans for the whole region, rather than just for the individual cities falling in the region” (Khanna and Sharma, 2020, plO). The document cites the cases of the Air District in California and regional initiatives in China in the Yangtze and Pearl River Delta, respectively, to call for a similar strategy for the NCR. The idea is not entirely new. The Director of the Delhi Government's Environment Department had flagged the need for airshed management of pollution in the NCR at a 2017 meeting organised by the International Institute for Energy Conservation. In our reading, the newly promulgated commission (CAQM) tries to do a bit of both the aspects of regional governance we note: it is in part about airshed management, and in part about better coordination. The agency has been given dedicated staff and resources—which was always the limitation with the EPCA—and members are drawn from the various states of the NCR plus Punjab (presumably because of the crop residue issue), representatives from several central government ministries, and from the civil society. While it promises better coordination for effective enforcement, there is little reason to doubt that the balance of power in the CAQM rests squarely with the central government in terms of both the overall number of members and in the appointment of the permanent members. Placing environmental governance within its larger context, CAQM fits firmly within the shifts in Indian political geography towards greater centralisation (and authoritarianism), and so, fears that environmental management may become the pretext to further weaken the powers of the states must be considered sympathetically, and might actually hurt efforts at smoother coordination. As we noted in the previous chapter, environmental concerns cannot be discussed in a vacuum, and expert-advocates, therefore, have to be more serious about the political implications of their seemingly scientific/technical arguments, such as the one by the group cited earlier, which made a strong, science-based, case for centralisation of air's governance.

The second strategy towards regional coordination does not advocate a separate institution above the present architecture, but focuses on horizontal coordination, drawing the various involved agencies into sustainedconversation aimed at directed actions. The key idea with such political work is trust, which, as we argued in Chapter 2, is not presumed to exist but emerges alongside collaboration. One nascent effort towards a horizontal approach is by a group of Indian parliamentarians who, according to member of parliament Gaurav Gogoi, “have put together a bipartisan group of MPs. [They] are trying to become influencers and encourage each other to work on different aspects of air quality management.”6 Gogoi adds that the group tries to educate itself in the technical nuances of pollution, while working to create a constituency within different political parties to push for coordinated air pollution action. This group would do well to study the experiences of Europe’s Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP), in operation since 1979, which brought together the Eastern and Western regimes of the continent. If Cold War adversaries could converse, agree on policy, and coordinate action around air pollution, then surely Indian states and parties can too. The Convention resulted from the shared scientific realisation that atmospheric pollutants travelled hundreds of miles to cause damage in places far removed from their source. CLRTAP has separate protocols related to ozone, heavy metals, sulphur emissions, VOCs, and nitrogen oxides, each focused on the specificities of monitoring, reduction, and prevention of pollution through legally binding provisions. In an analysis of the convention, Lidskog and Sundqvist (2002) describe the careful manoeuvring that was required to bring together scientific best practices and governmental action in a transboundary framework. They point to the importance of setting up communication channels between the constituent units, of starting with relatively modest achievable goals which are progressively scaled, and of the negotiations through which science and policy are co-produced, rather than one or the other assuming pre-eminence in determining the trajectory of plans. In other words, the malleability of both politics and science was viewed as a productive point of exchange: politicians thought like scientists, and scientists, like politicians. The convention shows that tricky transboundary or interstate issues require deft manoeuvring as much as they demand technical capacities and evermore sophisticated knowledge. Yet, institutional interventions that hinge on managerialism rarely appreciate the politics of environmental governance (Negi, 2019), and therefore hardly deliberate on the political skills needed to build effective collaborations. As air pollution governance is regionalised around Delhi, more such conversations are urgently required.

Judicial interventions

A critical aspect of atmospheric governance in the Delhi region has been the role of the judiciary in adjudicating contentious issues, while forcing the state to act on these concerns. The roots of the present judicial debate on air pollution can, in some ways, be traced back to December 1985, when an oleum gas leak from Shriram Industries’ chemical plant in the Moti Nagar area of Delhi killed one person and made many others sick. Environmental lawyer MC Mehta’s writ petition in the Supreme Court for the closure of hazardous industries like Shriram, which operated in proximity to dense residential areas, was already pending when the incident took place. Exactly a year since the Bhopal disaster, the court was more alert than usual and took serious cognisance of the matter. It imposed strict regulations on the factory in addition to ordering it to create a separate fund to compensate those affected by the leak. The court also “moved from the specifics of the S[h]riram case to more general propositions regarding hazardous industries in urban contexts” (Sharan, 2014, p234). With it, air pollution became an important matter of concern to the court, leading to several orders that had enormous bearing on Delhi’s air—and much more—in the following years.

In 1990, the freshly notified Delhi Master Plan 2001 stipulated that all hazardous and noxious industries were to be shifted out of Delhi. Like many other things contained in the nominally statutory Plan, this too wasn’t seriously pursued by implementing agencies. But the provision was cited by the courts adjudicating on air pollution to order the relocation of such industries to the periphery of Delhi, despite the loss of livelihoods such a move thr eatened. Soon after, via another judgement in 1998, the Supreme Court ordered the Delhi Government to convert the city’s buses, taxis, and autorickshaws to CNG by 2001, which it considered a cleaner fuel based on the advice of the EPCA. These developments signalled the height of judiciary-led urban environmental shifts in Delhi, as activists came to rely heavily on the courts to push the state to regulatory oversight, enforcement, and even more forward-looking policy changes. In 2010, the National Green Tribunal was notified, with five benches tasked with considering environmental issues brought before the courts, while also disposing them expeditiously. Seen holistically, with its increased role and scope of action, the judiciary has brought into “Indian environmental jurisprudence numerous principles of international environmental law. These include the polluter pays principle, the precautionary principle, [and] ‘the principle of inter-generational equity’” (Rajamani and Ghosh, 2012, pl50).

One element of atmospheric jurisprudence in India—within which Delhi has been a kind of laboratory—has been the turn from statutory cases, that is, where the relevant regulatory authority brings specific violation of environmental laws to court, to claims made under the Constitution’s Article 21 that guarantees right to life of citizens. Access to a clean environment has been interpreted by the courts as a fundamental right, and threats to it can thus be brought to the courts not only by those directly affected by pollution

qua nuisance, which was the case earlier, but by any party in the larger public interest. The preference for rights-based environmental jurisprudence is in part because of the time statute cases typically take, as appeals move from the lower to higher courts. In the words of Shibani Ghosh, an environmental lawyer who works at CPR,

if you had to activate the Air Act, you will have to go to Magistrate’s Court. Now who has the time and resources? Not only that. . . you’re not going to get the impact that you want, because the order may come after 17 years.

(Personal communication, 2020)

Ghosh refers here to a case related to criminal proceedings against a polluter that took those many years to resolve. In contrast, with rights-based cases, a petitioner may approach the high court or Supreme Court directly, bypassing the lower courts. Overall, Ghosh believes environmental petitioners have seen "more victories in rights-based cases than [they've] in statutory cases” (Ibid.). Echoing these thoughts, at a public meeting in 2018, Anu-mita Roychowdhury of CSE credited the judiciary for its environmental orders related to Delhi, and by extension, making the capital the catalyst for national action on air pollution. At an online roundtable in August 2020 that one of us participated in, Roychowdhury praised the judiciary for its recognition of the right to health.

Other observers are less sanguine about the judiciary's role in environmental issues. They argue that courts often pass orders that are practically impossible to implement on part of the executive, which has to balance several different agendas and exigencies in addition to the environment. In the residue burning matter, despite NGT orders and serious efforts, states have not been able to stop or even significantly lessen the fires. The issue is highly complex and silver-bullet techno-solutions, like the Happy Seeder, favoured by governments (see Chapter 3) do not account for things like the problems of landless farmers, the increasing salinity of land, and the larger agricultural crisis which has eroded farmer savings. Another concern is related to the peculiar and inconsistent workings of the public interest litigation (PIL), the preferred vehicle of environmentalists to approach the courts. In his careful reading of PILs related to environmental concerns, Bhuwania (2018) shows that by relying on expert committees and the amicus curiae, or a "friend of the court,” in cases of "citywide scope, a relatively small number of stakeholders actually played much of a part in the deliberations.” Bhuwania believes that PILs have become a highly “malleable” tool in the hands of judges to impose their particular worldview on disparate urban concerns. This is the reason why some PILs have been endlessly prolonged and scaled up to bring in issues far removed from their original scope, continuing to be mulled over by courts up to three decades from their original filing. Reading Ghosh and Bhuwania together, it seems to us that while the latter’s criticism of the PIL is undoubtedly valid, the reason why well-meaning activists have taken the route must be understood in a historical manner in relation to the larger developmentalist slant of the state, the powerful interests with stake in the continued pollution, and the hitherto weak public response to urban environmental concerns. Having said that, it is perhaps time advocates critically examine the implications of the judiciary’s roles, and recalibrate their strategies given the increasing public consciousness and mobilisation around urban environmental concerns. We turn to the latter matter now.

Atmospheric citizenship

The liberal theory of the state emphasises its place as separate from the (civil) society as the arbiter of social disputes, debates, and conflicts. Claims made by civil society are seen to flow from the fact of belonging to a particular political unit, or one's citizenship. The historically shifting dynamics linking power and subjects are termed “citizenship projects” by Rose and Novas (2005). Such projects have involved, among others, defining the political community, legal systems, national language, and social welfare. Over time, liberal societies have extended the scope of substantive rights to education, health, employment, and even information. While the debate on citizenship is not new and extends far beyond the scope of this work, there are two elements—urban and biological—in the recent reframing of citizenship that are important to think about what an atmospheric citizenship may mean.

Urban citizenship has been powerfully debated recently by movements organised under the broader Right to the City umbrella (Harvey, 2012). They argue that, first, since cities, by their very constitution, are relatively heterogeneous, issues of inclusion become important, especially in the context of majoritarian and xenophobic bent to certain urban politics. The ability of individuals and groups to belong while being different assumes importance in the relatively cosmopolitan urban scenario. Second, cities are characterised by what Manuel Castells termed “collective consumption,” or the socialisation of basic services and infrastructures, organised by the state through extended networks (Pahl, 1978). Substantive urban citizenship implies meaningfill access to these infrastructures. However, given the considerable unevenness across class, race, caste, and ethnic lines, marginalised groups often must organise and demand access. In some instances, they mobilise in defence of clandestinely built critical infrastructures—by squatting or tapping electricity wires—but which are deemed illegal by the state (Bayat, 2000). Third, an aspect of urban citizenship is related to the sharing of and caring for commons (Zimmer and Cornea, 2016). These include public spaces such as streets, parks, and squares; remnant ecological systems like urban forests and wetlands; and the atmosphere. In the recent past, the intense pressure to commodify and privatise commons has been resisted by communities and collectives in India and elsewhere.

Broadly speaking, Indian debates on urban citizenship have shown that it is differentiated (Heller and Mukhopadhyay, 2015), that is, highly unevenly accessed; and negotiated, such that claims cannot be taken for granted but emerge, for many communities, thr ough protracted “stories of dwelling and belonging” (Das, 2010). Further, following Wacquant (1996), it should be noted that substantive urban citizenship is not necessarily equal to wealth. Histories of specific neighbourhoods are equally important. Where one dwells matters. In Delhi, minority ghettos, unauthorised colonies, and slum-designated areas, especially those at the city’s physical margins, are most vulnerable to abjection, disruptions, uncertainties, and environmental risk due to their fraught links with economic and political power. Basic urban and environmental rights then become an arena for long-drawn-out struggles.

To anthropologist Adriana Petryna (2004), the classical idea of citizenship as handed by birth or naturalisation is inadequate to account for the real protections necessary for survival in conditions of severe economic insecurity and state incapacity. In the case of those exposed to radiation during the Chernobyl disaster, she argues that the tie that binds the Ukrainian state to claims for social protection is not their official citizenship, but the state’s recognition of bodily impairment due to radiation. As Petryna adds, "the tighter the connection that could be drawn, the greater the chance of securing economic and social entitlement” (2004, p262). Petryna calls this coupling of the body and claims, “biological citizenship.” Taking the idea forward. Rose and Novas (2005) describe the growing importance of such forms of citizenship, arguing that “claims on political and non-polit-ical authorities are being made in terms of the vital damage and suffering of individuals or groups and their ‘vital’ rights as citizens” (p441).7 The heightened consciousness of biological risk, vulnerability, and suffering is further constitutive of group identities, or what they term “rights biocitizenship” (p442). Collective solidarity and organising around health is driven by information and digital media, while also working through more traditional activist strategies of petitioning and protest.

We find that the notion of “atmospheric citizenship” contains both biological and urban moments: that is, a vital relation with bodily harm and a

Governance and atmospheric citizenship 63 concern with city life, planning, and environment. The potential of harm by toxic air—expressed in the popularity of such ways of knowing pollution as cigarettes smoked or years of life lost—increasingly informs claims to the state for clean air and a healthy city, which, in the specific Indian juridical context, makes use of the recognition of environmental degradation as undermining the right to life itself. According to Moe-Lobeda (2016), there are three elements to atmospheric citizenship: the

[f]irst is the implication that one is a “citizen” of the atmosphere as well as a citizen of varied bodies politic. A second is the implication of moral duty . . . toward the atmosphere. A third implication pertains to the rights of citizens, suggesting that a citizen of the atmosphere has rights related to the atmosphere and the services it provides.


The first is a fact of presence, the second of subjectivity, and the third, more than anything else, is historical. Like urban citizenship, a section of the population may not possess the social and cultural capital to claim clean air.

In an important social science analysis of Delhi’s air pollution, Véron (2006) considered the turn-of-the-century anti-pollution activism and judiciary-led interventions to make three broad arguments. First, in contrast to water, Véron argued that activism was concerned with public action rather than private solutions. Second, it was largely “reflective of a general middle-class bias” and activists had turned to the courts, “mostly to represent middle-class environmental interests” (p2104). Third, Véron found it natural that subsequent court-ordered interventions “worked against the interests of the urban poor, especially against slum dwellers and squatters” (p2104). These findings were consistent with other analysis of judiciary-enforced actions and their links with the urban reordering that defined millennial Delhi (Sharan, 2014). Options for environmental justice seemed foreclosed.

More recent work on urban environmental politics in Delhi (Follman, 2016; Ghertner, 2020) shows a move away from the middle-class agenda, though within limits. Follman’s study questions the environmentalism of the poor versus elite environmentalism binary in the case of civil society organisations working for the restoration of the Yamuna River. In the course of their activism, these groups have come to oppose the degradation caused by industry as well as the beautification agenda in the form of slum removal. Foilman (2016) notes that

the predominantly negative picture drawn of middle-class activism under the label of bourgeois environmentalism is ... at odds with thediversity of urban environmental activism and the wide spectrum of approaches and concerns taken up by middle-class dominated ENGOs engaged in urban environmental policy-making,


finding that "the debate about bourgeois environmentalism... overshadows these recent forms of urban environmental activism advocating for environmental protection and ecological restoration, as well as socio-ecological justice in the Indian context” (pl6). In their work on the politics around waste-to-energy plants in Delhi, Demaria and Schindler (2016) show that “while environmental politics in urban India has hitherto been understood as the preserve of a bourgeoisie intent on imposing revanchist order and disciplining the poor, [the w-t-e case] demonstrates that enviromnental politics can foster unlikely alliances among these groups” (p308). These (fraught) possibilities are also observed by Webb (2013), though he adds that inequalities may be reproduced in the division of labour, engagement with the external world, and spaces where diverse agents meet.

Tracking the fate of two court cases, namely, Arjun Gopal, which concerned the banning of firecrackers around Diwali, and Vardhaman, which came to be about phasing out of old diesel vehicles, Ghertner (2020) sees the rise of an atmospheric citizenship as demands for conditions of liveability at once shared by all of the city’s residents. He sees this current phase of air-related activism in contrast to the earlier elitist visions of a segregated city where “nuisance” was mobilised in law to target subaltern bodies and livelihoods in the service of a “clean, green city.” Ghertner, however, cautions that earlier logics continue in some form, most noticeably in the ability of the elite to produce segregated atmospheres via various technological solutions, as well as viewing clean air as a birthright, a la “upper-caste Hindus' entitlement to and constitution through purity” (pl54). Indeed, there are unequal infrastructures of breathing as gated and air-conditioned communities exclude the poor, who are pushed beyond the city with their homes cleared away for wider roads, newer expressways, and green spaces. Another of the state’s preferred solutions—the construction of ring highways— similarly relocates polluting trucks to the city's peripheries, even as the health of residents in these peri-urban areas is conspicuously absent from most conversations. In addition, not everyone can understand pollution-related vocabulary of standards, indices, or the loss of life expectancy, let alone act on them. The devolution of data and advocacy has certainly expanded expertise beyond the state's technical units and older organisations like CSE. But the depth of technoscientific expertise required to make sense of them, as well as resources needed to act on the warnings, implies that most people are outside the expert-led actions against air pollution.

This unequal distribution of air quality is also noted in scientific studies. Kumar and Foster (2009) conclude that relocation of industries and conversion of public transport to CNG has only served to redistribute pollution to Delhi’s periphery. It is thus no surprise that a recent report identifies 18 pollution hotspots along Delhi’s periphery (Toxics Link, 2014). Further, exposure to particulate pollution is not homogeneous. A study noted a direct relation between income and lung function (Narain and Krupnick, 2007) due to costs of preventive care and treatment. Another study found that 94 per cent of ragpickers surveyed suffered from respiratory symptoms (Ray et al., 2004). Moreover, school children disproportionately suffer from reduced lung function and respiratory symptoms (Ministry of Environment and Forests, 2008), particularly if they live near commercial or industrial areas (Mathew et al., 2013). Another study showed that working women and housewives have the highest daily exposure to poor air quality (Saksena et al., 2007), due to cooking and commuting by walking or using public transport. These studies clearly demonstrate that air quality regulations imposed on Delhi at the turn of the century were, at the very least, unable to ensure breathable air for most of the city's residents. Combined with cloistered, air-conditioned communities, and a state that has historically exported its pollution elsewhere, air has been socially and economically conditioned so as to occupy distinct spheres of purity and pollution. As Choy (2016) reminds us, “breathing together rarely means breathing the same.”

Despite these inequalities, air retains the ability to affect everyone, to be some kind of an equaliser. In an interview with a TV news channel,8 Sunita Narain of CSE spoke about the increased concentration of ozone during the summer months, adding that, by its very nature, it seeks and spreads to less polluted, presumably wealthier, parts of the city. No matter how wealthy one is, following Narain, it is almost impossible to completely insulate oneself from polluted air, and even this effort has certain side effects, including a vitamin D deficiency from lack of exposure to sunlight alongside. Ahmann (2020) suggests that the atmosphere as the hinge of environmental politics implies a constant tension between “connection and difference” (p465). It is seen at some moments as “everyone's problem,” and at others as something that affects people differently, depending on where one is. In our experience too, air is at once a shared and differentiated condition. It is also an umbrella with which multiple other elements are entangled. Claims for cleaner air, for instance, encompass concerns about the future of urban elements like transportation and industry alongside demands for access to healthcare. It is thus no surprise that pollution has moved up from a sporadic matter of concern to one of AAP's top priorities, joining affordable healthcare on the list. In the next section, we consider how advocates understand these possibilities of citizenship and the challenge of inequalities to develop a new praxis around air.

Translations and collaborations

As we have shown earlier, the complex of media, civic environmentalism, and individual protective action creates an “atmospheric citizenship,” a form of relating oneself to Delhi’s air that allows it be collectively understood, articulated, and reworked. In the 1990s, however, a vocabulary based on cross-cutting concepts of sustainability, environmental rights, and the precautionary principle was mobilised to promote anti-poor interventions; rightly inviting the criticism of elite environmentalism. The slow shifts in advocacy and activism that we have outlined in the previous section allow us to ask a different set of questions in the present: How open is the debate to different positionalities? Are the concerns of varied populations represented? Faced with anxieties of representation, how does enviromnental advocacy engage with the multiple unarticulated sites of knowledge and victimhood?

According to Natasha Khanna,9 a sociology graduate who works at a community mobilisation platform in Delhi, language is a matter of concern. Khanna says:

Most air quality information [is] available in English. How do you expect people to understand anything that way? CPCB [makes] no real effort in disseminating that information. So in Badarpur [a Delhi neighbourhood where the organisation campaigned], we printed fliers and pamphlets in Hindi. We found out that they were having waste collection problems. Nearby also there’s a landfill. People were concerned about smoke coming from there all the time.

(Personal communication, 2017)

Such acts of translation and communication have become increasingly critical to inclusive advocacy, and our interlocuters look to situate global discourses of climate change and sustainability alongside local and regional narratives. To further illustrate this point, we delve into our conversations with two important voices in Delhi's enviromnental advocacy space.

Sundeep Kumar from HCA,10 an umbrella group with scores of members, has an almost two-decade-long experience of enviromnental organising, having been part of Greenpeace in India and the Mediterranean region. Sundeep’s expertise is in promoting environmental causes by finding the most effective entry points to produce maximum public impact. He believes that environmentalists in India encounter strong institutional apathy and

Governance and atmospheric citizenship 67 inertia, and advocates must therefore locate the most precise pressure points to push the system to action. How activists articulate their concerns is important and language is critical. Sundeep described to us the three strategies that seemed to work best. First, new idioms of representing the dangers of pollution were important to think through. He felt that the scientific category of mortality was not an effective invitation for people to care about air pollution:

[People] are like, sabko marna hai ek din [everyone will die one day]. But if we start addressing the lifestyle angle, or the quality of life, like it’s not about people dying, but what kind of life are you living? What kind of air are you breathing? That, I think people can get.

(Personal communication, 2019)

Second, HCA looks for political openings when the gaze of the world, so to speak, is on India. During the Under-17 football World Cup in India in 2017, for instance, the group “bought about 50 tickets . . . and went with placards, unfurled a banner, saying our goal is clean air, and then got the conversation going around that. (Ibid.)” They also saw the Delhi Marathon as an opportunity to engage the public in a conversation on the deleterious impacts of physical activity during peak-pollution season. Sundeep finds the activism on Diwali firecrackers similarly productive:

From a data point of view, one could say that it’s veiy small ... the major contributors are vehicular pollution or crop burning ... but people talking about [firecrackers] does contribute ... in the previous years there was no conversation around air pollution. We made that happen.


Third, the alliance has been working hard to translate scientific studies into vernacular languages to bring regional media into the conversation via outreach efforts outside the metros. In particular, their messaging is increasingly targeted at younger residents of smaller towns with the use of social media and contextual vocabularies. Sundeep considers collaborative practice as a critical element of heightened awareness and action around air pollution, adding that it is important for allies to drop their individual brand from collective movements. He sees his role as “convening and coordinating,” bringing together environmentalists, lawyers, data scientists, citizen scientists, and community mobilisers. Sundeep is upbeat: “Everybody brings in their resources, their networks, and their skills and we make things happen with whatever we have” (personal communication, 2019).

The second voice we present is of the late Ashutosh Dikshit, erstwhile CEO of URJA, an alliance of over 2000 elected RWAs from across Delhi (see Chapter 2). RWAs have been the chosen institution representing the interests of homeowners and residents of the city’s neighbourhoods for a while, but during the Sheila Dikshit government (1998-2013), they were made partners in urban governance through the delegation of functions from state departments. While there remain questions about the effectiveness and progressiveness of these shifts, RWAs have certainly become an important stakeholder in governance and in the city’s politics. In this vein, URJA and Ashutosh were part of a citywide movement against high electricity rates charged by private distribution companies. The wider protests on this issue, combined with Sheila Dixit’s steadfast defence of the companies, hastened the end of her 15-year rule in Delhi, while bringing a new opposition force in public view that later morphed into the AAR

It was around this time that URJA threw its weight behind air pollution advocacy, bringing the conversation to RWA spaces, and drawing on their collective weight to push the state to act. While Ashutosh did not consider URJA an activist organisation, since they worked with both the government and civil society, he credited activists for “making noise,” which brought issues to people’s notice (personal communication, 2017). Through the Delhi Clean Air Forum in 2016, URJA brought together RWAs, “religious institutions, expert committees, heads of schools to sit together and discuss [the issue]” (Ibid.). Like Natasha and Sundeep, Ashutosh too realised the importance of translation since the meaning of pollution varied depending on a person or group’s specific experiences. While garbage and plastic burning were important to those in one part of the city, construction dust was the problem for others. The key to Ashutosh was to tie these particularities together into a larger narrative. He said:

In Mundka people find sewer water overflowing, entering their homes and seeping into food. Log dekhte hain, log samajhte hain [people see and understand the issue], these relatable, local-level issues are brought to notice.


Ashutosh was engaged in the messy work of what he called “last-mile governance,” and he distanced himself from some of the anti-poor bias that has characterised middle-class RWAs in the past (Ghertner, 2012). On garbage burning, for instance, he argued against blaming the poor:

Most RWAs dislike when security guards bum plastic during winter... but give them minimum wages, at least! Give them warm jackets, gloves and a proper uniform for winter. If you don't provide all this, how will a man keep himself warm?

(Personal communication, 2017)

As we’ve discussed in Chapter 2, URJA also conducts public surveys and air pollution monitoring and shares its data with the wider public, so that a unified environmental lobby can be created.


The narratives and arguments presented in the chapter suggest that there are significant shifts in air pollution advocacy in the last 30-odd years. While the judiciary remains an important agent of atmospheric governance, the larger emphasis has been decidedly on broad-based campaigning and mobilisation to push governments at various scales to acknowledge the problem, as well as to strengthen institutions to effectively implement regulations. Successful movements demand an openness to work with differently situated agents and willingness to translate across silos. A crucial focus of environmental advocacy, therefore, has been on creating larger alliances to push environmental causes, while also listening to different voices, and pursuing inclusion across space and communities. The latter effort is far from straightforward, given the uneven capacity of different individuals and groups to participate in the debate. This unevenness is related to understanding and articulating scientific data and technical concepts on the one hand, and possessing the resources to participate in long-drawn struggles given the exigencies of everyday life in the city. It should not be altogether surprising to find only those with the economic and cultural capital to be a part of the year-long debate for years on end.

Given the very real constraints, we consider it unfair on our interlocutors and others who have devoted their energies to campaign for cleaner air to be labelled outright as elite environmentalists. We believe it is important to consider their ideas of change, strategies, and tactics. In this scenario, a different set of questions must be asked: How open are they to different positionalities? And are the concerns of varied populations represented? It is here that we see reflexivity and collaborations with the potential to change the terms on which environmental politics proceeds in Delhi and beyond. We see the debate on what constitutes the problem being expanded to fold in an appreciation of the different elements of the urban economy, diverse ways of being, and connections between the city and the wider region. Atmospheric citizenship, in short, has the potential to inform and push environmental politics in more progressive directions with its recognition of air’s shared but differentiated condition, its varied experiences and situated knowledges, and the political stakes of institutional architectures and shifts therein.


  • 1 Rohit Negi, fieldnote, 2 November 2019.
  • 2 UNEP document. Available at (Accessed 21 April 2020).
  • 3 Sayani Gupta (pseudonym), researcher with a public health NGO, personal communication, 2019.
  • 4 Sayani Gupta, personal communication, 2019.
  • 5 Literally, tire “party of the common man”
  • 6 From Gogoi’s intervention at a panel on air pollution at CPR Dialogues, Delhi, 4 March 2020.
  • 7 Vital here is used both in the biological sense as relating to life, and as something necessary.
  • 8 Primetime with Ravish Kumar, NDTV India, 22 April 2019.
  • 9 Pseudonym.
  • 10 The names of the person and organisation have been anonymised.


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