In late 1990s and early 2000s, entities inside Delhi were imagined as polluting the city and they were shifted out through legal processes, creating precarious conditions for factory workers and public transport drivers. The historian Awadhendra Sharan has documented the history of urban planning and how it grappled with questions of toxicities of air, water, and waste in his book In the City, Out of Place: Nuisance, Pollution, and Dwelling in Delhi, C.1850-2000 by engaging with 150 years' worth of archival material. Now, however, the focus has shifted outside the megacity, even as it expands its borders. Where is the pollution coming from, people ask? Is it Punjab or the Middle East? There is an ongoing massively-funded megaproject to figure out the concentrations of toxics in Delhi. Its aim is to confront regulatory reforms posed by scalar re-making of Delhi's air. Binaries are being blurred and configured in ways specific to megacities: indoor-outdoor, rural/peri-urban/urban, state/center.
It is undoutedly at Delhi's ever-shifting borders that concentrations of toxicity are imagined. Whether it is the burning of agricultural stubble in neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana, the thermal power plants and brick kilns that dot the peri-urban and rural regions around Delhi, the movement of dust from elsewhere, or the chemically hazardous factories and household industries in Delhi's industrial suburbs where people dissemble and recycle electrical components from everywhere in the world--the toxic air in Delhi is constructed through its marginal spaces.
Rather than traces, there is an abundance of toxicity. I could drown in the field of representation when I search for Delhi's air online. The problem for me is to find erasures of toxicity, both in terms of how unequal breathing exposures are represented scientifically and visually, and of how toxic histories of disposession are (not) grappled with in this field of representation.
Through visualization techniques that attempt to place Delhi's air, the question of scale in environmental governance is constantly brought up. Maps and charts display various scalar attachments to air. It is clear to everyone that state governments must collaborate. But how would such collaboration look like under current political regimes? What would it tell about federal relations within a postcolonial nation-state?
Further, the scale at which air is monitored influences the type of pollution-health link being drawn. Air monitored through surface-level, expensive machines that cost thousands of dollars each assume an "airshed" which erases unequal breathing exposures. Air monitored through the individual body, however, confronts problems of abstraction, extrapolation, representativeness, and reproducibility. Place-making and body-making processes are thoroughly interlocked through uncertainities in knowing about air. How do scientific ways of knowing and placing grapple with such difficult problems?
This assembly of charts and maps shows the material-semiotic categories through which "Delhi air pollution" can be visualised. Land-locked. Temperature inversion. Stubble burning. Dust. Thermal emissions. Vehicle exhaust. Hazardous. Delhi's air comes into existence in relation to mapping flows of wind, fire, dust, and rain. Without referring to agricultural burning practices in neighboring rural areas, or emphasising that there is a natural component to this man-made problem, Delhi's air cannot become truly hazardous. It is not sufficient to point to local sources of emissions. Scalar relations must be drawn between plains and mountains, between megacities and the shadows they cast, between slow exposure and urgency. Ecologies and atmospheres are being sketched out to place Delhi's air.