Placing Delhi's air


I want to think about what it means to link Delhi and air through an apostrophe. What is Delhi’s air? For whom is Delhi’s air? What is being seen? What ways of seeing are being cultivated? What is articulated but not cultivated? What illegibilities do visualizing strategies confront? I want to understand how to convey at once that scaling air is tied to governance and environmental politics; that it links the body, lung, and individual in a specific way; and that it shows the important work of science to make all these links.  

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Bordering toxicity

Air's flows are never imagined in a vaccuum. Air pollution always moves from a polluting source (stationary or mobile) to a cleaner source. They become lenses through which developmentality operates, becoming inseparable from geopolitics.

Delhi's air has many spatial valences: neighborhood, urban, regional, national, even transnational. And even as toxics complicate scale, they become known as equalizers.The right for clean air becomes an individual right, a human right, even though advocates know it is a matter of social justice. Why is it so hard for advocates in Delhi to visualize air as a shared yet fragmented experience? What hinders solidarity while acknowledging differences of exposure? What visualisation strategies can be helpful?

I think that one way to disrupt the toxic air-as-equalizer narrative is to simply show that it does regard borders. Not fully, but the way people have to live in, and the way polluting entities become concentrated, makes breathing at the borders precarious. Nor do borders mesh with political borders. They can be frontiers of capital and infrastructure, the borders between our bodies, the borders between our home and the world beyond.

I created this map using two sources: a 2014 report on Delhi's toxic hotspots by the non-government organisation Toxics Link and a 2013 scientific peer-reviewed article by Sarath Guttikunda and Giuseppe Calori. I made the underlying map of Delhi using Google Maps and marked the toxic hotspots indicated by the 2014 report. Then I overlaid the GIS image created by Guttikunda and Calori on Delhi's map, zoomed out to match with the GIS image approximately. There is slight incorrespondence between the two images, mainly because of a lack of technical skill. Despite that, I think the image (both found and created) shows that there are clearly toxic hotspots and clusters near Delhi's actual political borders (marked in red). 

A demand for cleaner air has to be attentive to such spatial injustices, particularly as polluting sources have been placed at the peripheries in earlier moments to "decongest" Delhi by moving its polluting factories and workers elsewhere. 

Installing lungs

In 2018, a "giant pair of lungs" was installed in front of the busy Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in north Delhi. Installed in early winter just before the Hindu festival of Diwali when people would burst banned firecrackers, the lungs are actually huge HEPA filters which are supposed to turn progressively darker one day after another by filtering out particulate matter. And they did, as this time-lapse video shows. By November 8, one day after Diwali, the lungs had turned completely black. This installation was created by Lung Care Foundation, an NGO headed by a prominent respiratory surgeon who lives in Delhi. Two decades before, similar images had circulated when another prominent surgeon contrasted the black lung of a Delhi resident he had operated on with the pink lung of someone who lives in a mountainous area. This installation, though, by using HEPA filters, recenters the materiality of PM2.5 in its connection with the lung. The attachment to Delhi still remains but the attention has shited elsewhere. Emma Garnett writes about the "elemental ambiguity of PM2.5" (2018), the difficulty of grappling with toxicity that is not molecular and that configures scientific research in new ways, demanding new links to be made, new boundaries to be drawn between body/not-body, human/nonhuman, indoor/outdoor. Since the installation locates air within the lungs, it also centers the individual human body as the site for intervention. How does this shape environmental activism and justice?

Though many images of this installation/experiment are available online, I chose this image because of two reasons: it is taken from a right-wing media outlet, and it frames the lungs in relation to a colonial-era war monument engulfed by seasonal smog and bounded by police barricades. The monument India Gate in the background was built in 1921 to honor British Indian Army soldiers who died defending British imperial centers across the world in the First World War. It is significant that the media outlet chose this framing. What toxic histories and legacies does this framing draw attention to and why?

Contouring air

I took this screenshot from Berkeley Earth's Air Quality Real-time Map. The map can be zoomed-in and zoomed-out. So I had to choose the framing of my screenshot. I did not want to choose a flat, connected world though that would tell the story of a global air. I did not want to zoom-in only to Delhi or only to India though that would surely tell the story of urban air or national air. I chose a framing that scientific papers use to tell the story of a world mapped on an axis of progress. In this map, Delhi can be discerned only by a cluster of blue dots (which represent surface monitoring stations) in north India. The map shows that air flows but is contoured by concrete geographies. It presents in full view the different scales that would be confronted by environmental governance: transnational, national, regional, urban, rural. The data comes from surface monitoring stations which means the map also represents highly local dynamics. Visualising air this way troubles scale.

Miracle cures

I took this screenshot from an interview of India's environment minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan. The interview's headline expresses the inability of a government which prides itself on conducting "surgical strikes" (covert operations across national borders to kill suspected terrorists) to think the same way about air. I took this screenshot when the environment minister talked expressed a wish that he had a cure for pollution. We see him confront limits of his government's style of functioning. When contrasted with military vocabularies, what does this way of wishing about air reveal about how air is to be managed?

Smog Tower

An imagined technoscientific infrastructure comes home. On the lines of China, Delhi might get anti-smog tower", reads a news article from The Times of India in November 2019, promising an infrastructure of purification that should work in Delhi because it works in Xi'an. The actual smog tower inaugurated in January 2020 is painted in the Indian tricolor of saffron, white and green, inaugurated by cricketer turned politician Gautam Gambhir who represents the political party BJP in the constituency of East Delhi. BJP is the political party that currently forms the central government of India, galvanizing people on communal polarisation and ethnocentric nationalism. Even though scientists have questioned if the smog tower really works, the vertical purifying machine built on top of a sewer drain would undoubtedly find itself represented in the next electoral cycle's  manifestos, an example of something concrete that has been done to intervene in a frustrating problem. Though the tower would produce a local purified bubble, it is meant to provoke affective ties to toxic nationalism.


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Created date

February 3, 2020

Cite as

Prerna Srigyan. 3 February 2020, "Placing Delhi's air ", Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 24 February 2020, accessed 21 June 2024.