Dr. Rohit Negi is an Assistant Professor in the School of Human Ecology at Ambedkar University, India. He is currently leading an extension of the The Asthma Files’ Six Cities Project in Delhi. This project aims to advance understanding of different ways scientific capacity is developed and used in air pollution governance in four Indian metros (Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Pune).
The research examines stakeholder roles and perspectives, links between policy domains (especially environment, transportation, health, and education), and links across scale (urban, state, national, and international). The goal is to characterize different education-to-science-to-policy pathways, and distinctive modes or “styles” of environmental health and risk governance.
Here is a short Q&A with Dr. Negi:
Tell us more about your project.
Our research considers Delhi’s experiences with toxic air, particularly since 2014, using a detailed reading of scientific and policy reports, and in-depth interviews with scholars, advocates and practitioners to construct a multilayered story of science, activism and governance as the city is confronted with a major health and sustainability challenge. Part of it contributes to the multi-sited The Asthma Files (TAF) project, anchored by Professor Kim Fortun at the University of California- Irvine, while other questions extend my ongoing interest in urban change in the Delhi region.
Conceptually, it is an inquiry from a conjoined urban geography and science and technology studies perspective. There is so much going on around air in Delhi that as a researcher it is often hard to keep up and there is pressure to immediately intervene, but we are convinced by the necessity of a nuanced understanding of the issue, which refracts current concerns through space and time.
What is the motivation behind this project?
A key interest is to pose a critique to one of the accepted wisdoms in urban studies of India, especially Delhi. There is widespread suspicion of environmental advocacy amongst social scientists and activists following the tradition of middle-class environmentalism. The latter were rightfully criticised for picking up certain favorite causes (tiger conservation for instance) at the cost of already marginal lives and livelihoods. However, the air episode to me points to the need for engagement in good faith amongst scientists, environmentalists and social justice advocates since—to a greater extent than many other issues—toxic air affects everyone, and is especially harsh on the working classes. In fact, the more time one spends within conditioned bubbles of ACs, purifiers, and high-end masks, the more their ultimate futility is realised. We find today’s data miners and visualisers, citizen-activists and even scientists talk and write about air pollution from a position that is sensitive to its class and gender dimensions, and they are looking for public solutions to the problem, even as they seek to limit immediate risks through whatever means are at hand. The aim of the project is to elaborate on such practices, but also to recognise their limits.
What is your academic background, and how did you get interested in this topic?
My undergraduate training is in Planning (School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi), and I completed Masters in Urban Planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Thereafter, I earned a PhD in Geography from the Ohio State University. I joined Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD) in 2010. My master’s project was on the judiciary-led interventions related to air pollution in Delhi at the turn of the century. In 2014, I was struck by how the air had once again become a major governance issue and by the manner in which this new debate was different from before. A much more diverse range of agents now contribute to the discussion, social media is a critical tool, a new market for so many products has popped up, and previously unknown ‘enemies’ are now at play (PM2.5, for eg).
In late 2015, one of our masters students, Prerna Srigyan, expressed interest in working on the topic for her dissertation. Prerna wrote an excellent thesis and we have continued to work on the topic since then. She is now a researcher with TAF.
Where can interested individuals find more information about this work?
I have published some preliminary provocations (in Himal Southasian and Seminar). A couple of book chapters that have been co-authored with Prerna are going to be published soon. Folks can get in touch with us if there’s something more specific they would like to know.
What are your thoughts on the interplay between sciences and humanities in the field of air pollution research?
Building bridges and working collaboratively is absolutely critical today. We inhabit a planet hurtling towards ecological crisis, while at the same time the political climate is moving in a post-truth direction. The gap is enormous. Part of it is that science has, in the last three or so decades, become more transparent on its methods and circumspect about its results. Scientists are engaged in serious thought about the implications of uncertainty and unpredictability, concerns that have been fundamental to humanities over the years. One cannot simply point at the infallibility of science anymore as evidence. Rather, trust has to be won through engaged practice, and therefore, the need to look over one’s cubicle. On the other hand, there is now a great degree of interest on the ecological question in the humanities. Amitav Ghosh has recently written on this. Timothy Morton is another scholar we should all be reading. As for our project, I do not have expertise in the scientific and technical aspects of air and approach it from an urban studies and political ecology frame. Prerna is better placed: her undergraduate degree is in Chemistry and she has developed an understanding of the critical social sciences during her time at AUD. Working collaboratively means that we are able to make sense of the discussion from otherwise distinct vantage points.