A new book gives clear insights into rulers’ response to air pollution rising with India’s urbanisation in 19th-2oth centuries
Awadhendra Sharan | January 14, 2021
Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism: India, c. 1860-1940
By Awadhendra Sharan
Orient BlackSwan, xxiv+320 pages, Rs 795
Air pollution is now the world’s leading environmental risk factor. It reportedly causes 5 million deaths globally, India and China alone contributing 1.2 million deaths each. With increased inconveniences and suffering on account of the poor quality of outdoor and indoor air in India, it is imperative to look at how air is impacted by our activities, how it is regulated, and how it affects spaces and bodies across class and gender.
‘Dust and Smoke’ examines the history of smoke as a nuisance in Indian cities, particularly in colonial Calcutta and Bombay. It studies the varied sources of energy used for domestic and industrial purposes, the persistence of old trades, the organisation of industrial production, labouring practices, and urban development projects which produced new sites of work, habitats and commodities on the one hand, and smoke and dust on the other.
The author explores the different attitudes of government and industry to this persistent problem through three phases—the municipal intervention phase from the 1860s to the 1890s; the setting up of the Smoke Nuisances Commissions as regulatory authorities to prosecute violators; and the post–First World War phase with emphasis on energy conservation and scientific awareness. He examines the fallacy behind the notion that rural and urban spaces—nature and cities—are antithetical to one another, rather than being enmeshed in a complex network of social, economic, political and environmental dynamics.
Relying on municipal archives, reports of the Smoke Nuisances Commissions, newspaper accounts, commercial advertisements for smoke-free appliances, etc., this book offers a unique historical study of air pollution in India. It will interest students and researchers in sociology, politics, urban studies, environmental studies and labour studies, and also those engaged in activism, policymaking and the regulation of urban air.
Here is an excerpt from the third chapter:
Expertise, Empire and Smoke Nuisances Commissions, 1900–16
Lord Curzon and the Empire of Expertise
On setting out on his journey as Viceroy of India in 1899, George Nathaniel Curzon addressed his old Etonian mates on the responsibilities that lay before him. Among these was to ensure that India achieved the ‘full measure of her growth’, by ‘slow but sure degrees’, even as Britain continued to rule over her empire in perpetuity. Curzon believed this to be Britain’s manifest destiny, but to ensure which the imperial mission would have to be radically recast. The investment of capital and employment of labour upon railways and canals, in factories, workshops, mills and mines and on tea, sugar and indigo plantations were seen by him as being essential to this recasting. Equally, the affairs of the empire would have to be conducted with greater efficiency, Curzon having a keen sense of the fact that outcomes of the competition among the great powers in the twentieth century would hinge not on the superiority of force but on their relative efficiencies. The burdens of the government were being added to everyday, he observed, by ‘tendencies and forces outside of government’, forces that were difficult to resist but, equally, ‘not powerless to control’. And so in this background, he set out to articulate a new conservative agenda for India’s progress, one in which autocratic and benevolent British rule would seek to secure the interests of the people of India through development of Indian resources while maintaining social and political stability.
Colonial powers had always promoted a version of development, initially through trade and then through investments, to exploit colonial resources and peoples. However, by the late nineteenth century, the British had also begun to think of colonial policy in terms of its capacity to promote development along ‘national’ lines, the implied meanings of this terminology constantly mutating through the latter half of British rule. Reformers who had earlier concerned themselves with localised health and sanitation issues, now showed greater urgency for what would come to be termed ‘development’ within colonial settings, the quest for progress and efficiency, as suggested by Curzon, being part and parcel of this. In all this, Curzon might have been charting a new path, displaying a greater willingness on the part of the government to intervene in the economy than had been the case with his predecessors. Numerous administrative reforms were also undertaken, with a view to ensuring that technical subjects were dealt by special departments staffed by specialists, and not by the generalist civilians who had hitherto manned the Indian bureaucracy. A Board of Scientific Advice was set up in 1902 and several other experts brought in as an immediate outcome of Curzon’s emphasis—an inspector general of agriculture, a chief inspector of mines, a government architect, a government electrical advisor, a sanitary commissioner, etc. And among these experts was Fredrick Grover, the smoke inspector of Leeds, seconded to India to propose new measures for effectively combating smoke in Calcutta. Anticipating his arrival, Curzon said:
“I may inform you that we have an expert from England, even now on the seas, coming out here to advise us as to how we may combat this insidious and growing danger. I hope, when he comes, all those who are concerned in the enterprises that result in such excellent financial dividends at the expense of so much fuliginous deposit will join hands with us in the attempt to curtail a mischief which, if unarrested . . . will before long destroy one-half of the amenities of Calcutta, and will permanently injure its incomparable beauty and charm.”
The issue of smoke abatement, we have suggested in this chapter, underwent a radical change in the first two decades of the twentieth century, with English expertise drawn upon to fashion a new Act for the abatement of smoke in Calcutta and an American precedent highlighted in Bombay. Key to this transition was the move away from assessments based on the means that had been adopted to curtail smoke to the fixing of time limits for which smoke of various densities could be emitted, such time and density to be recorded more scientifically than before. Education and learning, and a close cooperation between the commissions and industry remained constant, as did the suspicion of native stokers and their disciplining through fines. What was new, however, more in Calcutta than in Bombay, was that this came together with an equal emphasis on prosecution for having emitted excessive smoke. Success was claimed in this regard in both cities, measured through declining averages of dense smoke, counted in terms of average emissions of density-6 smoke, measured in minutes per hour. However, such claims also need to be read with caution, with continued presence of dark smoke and the lack of adequate engagement with members of the public continuing to be highlighted by the press. In time, the Bengal commission itself took note of several shortcomings, especially with respect to the exception granted to shipping in the original Act and with respect to the regulation of smoke that was consequent upon the manufacture of coke. Equally, it signalled a move towards a new way of doing things in the post-war years, taking direct responsibility for advising on technical matters, about which there had been much vacillation till date.
[Excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers]
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