Extreme air pollution events have become a regular phenomenon in Delhi, triggering conjunctions of air pollution and death popularly referred to as airpocalypse. The city’s collective reckoning with bad air raises the question of how social justice is to be imagined when the source of death is diffuse and leaky. The Indian judiciary has taken up this question in earnest, dispersing the legal treatment of life away from its historical focus on individuated life-beings and toward a more atmospheric domain of biological abstractions and vital circulations: aggregate lung capacity, collective asthmatic risk, and distributed body parts. Life in law is now monitored through air quality indexes and climatological reports as much as X-rays or electrocardiograms, making it something not just shaped by the environment but itself an environmental condition. Following judicial discourse stemming from key pollution-related court cases, this article examines how these new distributions of life transform urban citizenship, which has been grounded in India in the right to life. It argues that multiple political potentialities unfold once citizenship is no longer anchored exclusively in the sovereign self, with emergent forms of atmospheric citizenship resting on a humanist principle of atmospheric sharing while simultaneously sustaining logics of atmospheric segregation.
Airpocalypse: Distributions of Life amidst Delhi’s Polluted Airs
D. Asher Ghertner is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and director of the South Asian Studies Program at Rutgers University. He is the author of Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi (2015).
D. Asher Ghertner; Airpocalypse: Distributions of Life amidst Delhi’s Polluted Airs. Public Culture 1 January 2020; 32 (1): 133–162. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-7816329
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