In September, Johannes Urpelainen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, tweeted about his new co-authored paper on cross-state air pollution in India. Other than Urpelainen, the co-authors of the paper are based in various US universities and in Fudan University in Shanghai. Their paper argues that a significant proportion of the country’s air pollution load, especially via industrial and energy emissions, crossed state borders and therefore required more centralised interventions than is the case presently.

Like many scientific papers on the issue that we have encountered, this one too hopped from science to policy and politics without commensurate historical contextualisation. But that is not the point here.

A few hours later, Shahzad Gani, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth Systems Research in Finland retweeted the original post, adding that it was yet another paper from this research group “with not even a single author from India and incredibly sparse references”. This comment stoked controversy. Urpelainen responded by asking if in Gani’s view “every paper on India must have a local author”?

The conversation soon received the attention of other air pollution scientists, including Pallavi Pant and R Subramanian, who wondered if any effort was made to include Indian scholars or to reference the substantial literature on the issue already in the public domain, especially that produced by scholars based in Indian institutions.

In another thread, Karthik Ganeshan of the Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water highlighted the persistent issue of well-funded scholars based in the global North publishing in top journals without acknowledging the work of local researchers.

Ganeshan suggested that this was one reason why many institutions and individuals in India were hesitant to make their datasets public, which hurt larger advocacy and governance efforts.

Decolonising science

Similar discussions on the political economy and power dynamics of academic work that constitute relations between the North and South, broadly under the rubric of decolonising knowledge, are by now fairly common in the humanities and social sciences. It is refreshing to note such conversations in and among scientists.

In this background, a new podcast series hosted by the CoLab Radio at Massachusetts Institute of Technology titled Decolonizing Science is another important effort.

In its first episode, PhD researcher and air pollution scientist, Priyanka deSouza suggests that sophisticated and expensive instruments – inaccessible to most scientists in the South – are seen as the “gold standard” by the international scientific community and top journals demand data generated through them to be considered for publication. Not only does this practically create a northern monopoly over publication but also wrongly positions research produced by these means as “novel”.

It is as if the new research brings an unknown problem to light, even though studies of air pollution in countries like India and Kenya goes back several decades, and includes a lot of labour by locally-based researchers.

It is with this intent, of moving toward historically-attuned knowledge, that this article aims to briefly introduce air pollution research on Delhi through the decades. As part of this work, we built a database of scientific publications on atmospheric pollution in the Delhi region from the early 1950s to the present (total 100 papers), read them closely, extracted their main emphasis, and developed a narrative of the issues of interest, methods adopted, and their chief arguments.

A chronological summary of findings

Key findings

Here we outline five of our main findings, in the hope that interested readers continue to explore the history of air pollution science with the seriousness that it deserves.

  1. Many of the concerns that occupy us in the present have been recognised, studied and debated for a long time. For instance, influential studies conducted during the last five years have suggested that dust is a critical pollutant in the region, especially during the summers. In the 1950s and 60s too, dust was seen as the primary scientific concern. Studies on its various manifestations – as dust storms, dust fog and the “loo” – were conducted, and scientists seemed concerned with the possible worsening of the problem as the Thar Desert seemed to be extending toward Delhi, which continues to be discussed.  
  2. During many recent public conversations on air pollution in Delhi, participants have mentioned how the question of its impacts on health might be the most critical entry point to make it a matter of public concern. The relations between health and different pollutants were in fact of primary interest to researchers in the 1960s and ’70s. A 1960 paper, for example, written by doctors at a Delhi asthma clinic, attempted to make robust links between dust, pollen and respiratory health. Many subsequent papers studied the effects of various pollutants on incidences of asthma, chronic cough and bronchitis. In some ways, the current domination of the field by monitoring and modelling approaches is far more recent than we usually imagine.
  3. It is common these days to encounter a ranking of cities based on prevailing air quality. While the variables that are now used include things like the Air Quality Index, cities were being ranked over 50 years ago on specific pollutants like Sulphur Dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere primarily by coal-based power plants. In the early 1950s, a study compared SO2 pollution in London and Delhi by measuring the relative corrosion of iron, concluding that the former’s problem with the pollutant was far worse than Delhi. Until well into the 1970s, Delhi was seen to be less polluted than cities like Bombay, Calcutta or Kanpur, which had a greater concentration of industry.  
  4. One of the effects of recently-developed techniques of monitoring and visualisation of pollution is that it is increasingly seen in a transboundary, international and even global framework. Even the paper that this article referenced in the opening was one such effort, as are analysis based on satellite imagery, which presents a birds-eye view of regional pollution. In doing so, there is a tendency to overlook localities’ relations with pollution. In contrast, in the 1970s and 80s scientists were deeply interested in identifying and studying pollution hotspots. These very often were areas adjacent to power plants and industries, and the high concentration of pollutants in these zones were linked with their health impacts. One paper found that increased levels of DDT in the air in a West Delhi neighbourhood was on account of indiscriminate spraying as part of mosquito control.
  5. Over time, pollution research and publications have expanded to fold in matters like policy, econometrics and perceptions studies. As a result of the efforts of scientist advocates like the late Professor Kirk Smith, indoor pollution has been studied as part of a larger agenda of household energy use and its gendered nature. At the same time, we notice a consistent lack of interest in the health of workers in polluting industries, or groups who are exposed to heightened risk, such as truck drivers or individuals going through homelessness. Had this tradition of research been stronger, concerns around justice would have been far more central to scientific research and advocacy than they have been.  

Advocacy and environmental justice

Overall, our reading shows that even as the understanding of pollution has become richer and fine-grained with the inclusion of a wider range of pollutants (such as PM2.5 and Ozone) and more precise source apportionment, the essence of the problem has been well understood for a long time.

This raises what is to us a critical question that must be thought through with urgency as part of the decolonising debate: are scientists on a data treadmill or is there a meaningful movement in terms of their links with policy, advocacy and environmental justice?

Part of the problem is that the academic system, where most of the researchers are located, pressures them to continually win grants and publish for the sake of career and tenure, and does not adequately reward linkages with other spheres, such as public engagement.

Added to this is the persistent hesitation of scientists to step out of the comfort zone of labs, research teams and the academic community to become a more direct part of the wider landscape of debate, advocacy and activism.

Another related issue is that scientific knowledge is considered a priori a more legitimate (“truer”) way of understanding environmental issues, and scientists tend to devalue other ways to see and know.

In Delhi, however, we witness a welcome change from this scholarship-as-usual situation. We find many leading scientists engage and collaborate with a wider cross-section of voices, generating a vibrant discussion on the causes of and potentially-effective and just interventions.

The recent call from the courts and the Delhi government to install smog-towers, for instance, has been heavily criticised by scientists and advocates, who argue for a policy focus on sources and not the post-facto amelioration of pollution.

Many scientists around Delhi seek to reach out to other constituencies through more effective outreach and translation of their findings. We hope to see more such efforts and a deeper engagement with the margins, in terms of populations and knowledge, as part of the larger agenda to decolonise air pollution science.

The authors are from the School of Global Affairs, Ambedkar University Delhi.