How the colonial rulers combated “this insidious and growing danger” of dust and smoke
A new book gives clear insights into rulers’ response to air pollution rising with India’s urbanisation in 19th-2oth centuries
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.