revisiting maximum city amid delhi’s air pollution

earlier this week, a friend responded to this article on delhi’s pollution levels by reporting to facebook:

in the last week, 2 of my friends have moved back (one permanently & the other temporarily) to the states because of peak pollution levels. others are booking flights to leave the city for portions of the winter

it seems that most of the adaptations we strive towards are restricted to creating healthy spaces for ourselves amongst the pollution that most of the city’s residents cannot escape. 


what she is saying, and is right, is that those of us that can and are staying in delhi are partially creating an air-istocracy. some of us are able to refine the very most public of goods — the air — for ourselves. a public good is by definition non-rivalrous and non-excludable. and yet we are working to make breathable air exclusive: in our flats, in our enclosed vehicles, in our office spaces, behind our masks.


this needs to change, lest we become confined to these bubbles and delhi becomes even less friendly to pedestrians and cyclists and generally to taking a stroll or letting in a bit of fresh air through the windows.


what i wrote on facebook, and i stand by at risk of being offensive, is this: in a considered and intentional, if provocative, turn of phrase to indicate violation or abuse without consent, delhi rapes my lungs on a daily basis.


this intended to play on one of the major threats the outside world sees about living in delhi. the point is not to belittle violence against women experienced in delhi — which i have been merciful in not experiencing but which is a reality — or other forms of structural violence coped with on a daily basis. worrying about and living with these forms of violence wear people down to the point that they feel they can’t deal with something like the air. and so it goes undiscussed. but clean air is not ignorable. it is a form of violence and it needs to be addressed.


to tackle a problem of the common or public good is a challenge anywhere; it is deeply bound up with ideas of citizenship and the social contract, of paying taxes and the role of government and the space for activism. it requires a government that can impose regulations to protect public goods and it requires citizens to expect and demand this of their government, though it is not a commodity that can be handed out. it is about far more than putting up ‘clean city, green city’ signs (as, incidentally, tackling violence against women is about more than hanging up coasters in taxis and autos declaring (in english) that the vehicle respects women).


delhi and india, perhaps in particular, have a lot of work to do. i hope the world stays tuned and that india rises to the challenge. to close, i’ll allow someone else —  mehtu in maximum city — to muse on public goods in india (a passage that, ironically, i first read in the much cleaner air of rishikesh):


the flats in my building are spotlessly clean inside; they are swept and mopped every day, or twice every day. the public spaces – hallways, stairs, lobby, the building compound – are stained with betel spit; the ground is littered with congealed wet garbage, plastic bags, and dirt of human and animal origin. it is the same all over bombay, in rich and poor areas alike. this absence of a civic sense is something that everyone from the british to the hindu nationalists have drawn attention to, the national defect in the indian character (p. 138).



Published by hlanthorn

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1899-4790

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