Home >Opinion >Does pollution in northern cities have colonial roots?

The colonial experience is even worse than that hospitality establishment the Eagles sang about all those years ago. Not only can you not check-out any time you like—in fact, you often have to wreck the place and steal the salt to push the case. But also when they eventually let you go, you have to move into the hotel with the rest of the residents and argue over the mess that needs cleaning up.

Much is made about the enduring impact of imperialism on the Indian mind, religion, society, politics, economics and even sexual mores. At a somewhat simplistic, mass-media level, we tend to grapple with this long shadow in the form of two broad groups of interconnected questions.

First, what might have been had the British not come to India. And second, what current problems in Indian society can we blame on the British? Rarely does a discussion on freedom of speech, sexuality, morality and even casteism feature in the media without some reference to the colonial legacies that sit heavy on these aspects of Indian lawmaking and society. What is undeniable is that the shadow of colonialism continues to loom. Far more tricky, however, is quantifying its impact. Consider a widely discussed recent publication on air pollution from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Earlier this month, WHO revealed that out of the 20 worst polluted cities in the world, 14 were in India. The report ranked cities in order of detected levels of PM 2.5—air-borne particulate matter associated with higher levels of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Kanpur topped the list with a PM 2.5 level of 173, an astonishing 17 times the safe limit. In close second place was Faridabad, with 172. Jodhpur came in 14th place with 98. Six Asian cities make up the rest of the top 20.

The analysis of immediate reasons for these levels of pollution, and what can be done about it, are well beyond the scope of this column and the competency of this writer. However, as loath as I am to respond to social media trends, one particular statement that made the rounds is worth thinking about with a historical bent of mind.

And that was the observation that all 14 cities on the list are located in north India.

The 2016 WHO database is still being compiled, but a quick glance at earlier reports on PM 2.5 levels suggest this is indeed the case. In a 2012 report, one has to go all the way down to 40th in the list of Indian cities before the first south Indian city, Bengaluru, makes an appearance on the PM 2.5 list.

It is tempting to immediately ascribe some cultural reason for why south India appears to report far less air pollution. This is unwise. First of all, these reports only tell us PM 2.5 levels. There are other measures and types of pollution. Secondly, they give us a static ranking when, in fact, reported pollution levels for Indian cities have swung quite considerably over time. Thirdly, there could be environmental reasons such as weather, or geography, that account for some variation.

But, perhaps, there could also be an historical hypothesis worth pursuing. By the early 19th century, the East India Company ran a regime that brutally plundered India’s natural resources. Trees were felled in the millions for their timber or to make way for the railways. The teak trees of Malabar, it is famously, but perhaps not quite accurately, said, helped build the ships that beat Napoleon at Trafalgar.

In a 2016 article for The Third Pole titled “Pollution Worsens In The lower Ganga", Beth Walker pointed how imperial river management systems may have irreversibly damaged the Ganga and made it more prone to devastating floods.

However, from the 1860s onwards, a raft of legislation was enacted to control water pollution, improve urban sanitation, conserve forests, and protect wildlife. Not all of these were effective, but, at least, this appears to have gently applied the brakes on wanton destruction.

How does all this connect to the north-south divide in the WHO report?

Consider the timing of these imperial reforms. They all come into effect following the revolt of 1857, which also brought to an end the East India Company’s expansionist policies in India. The infamous Doctrine of Lapse, for instance, was discontinued.

Would it be outrageous to wonder if areas of high pollution in India today overlap with those parts that suffered the most, and the longest, under the East India Company’s domination? Especially if the worst of this damage was felt in the northern provinces? Might patterns of environmental policies during the Company and Raj periods help partly explain current pollution levels in India? Thus, perhaps, there are reasons of political history that illustrate the north-south divide better than, or in addition to, those of culture?

Outlandish? Perhaps not. In his quite fascinating recent book The Colonial Origins Of Ethnic Violence In India, researcher Ajay Verghese wondered why some places in Rajasthan were more prone to caste violence when others nearby saw greater inter-religious acrimony. Verghese’s research suggests that it all had to do with political history: Was the place part of a princely state or a British province? Let me not spoil the book for you.

All this is not to say that colonialism is a scapegoat for all of India’s contemporary problems. But merely to suggest that there are many explanations for why we are the way we are.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at

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