13 Jul

Geographical Review Preview: Air Pollution, Waste Management, and Livelihoods: Patterns of Cooking Fuel Use Among Waste Picker Households in Delhi

By: Aman Luthra, Bharati Chaturvedi and Srijon Mukhopadhyay

What is the main purpose of your study?
Air pollution in Indian cities is a major public health problem. The purpose of the study is to understand the unexpected relationship between two seemingly disconnected sources of air pollution in Delhi: open waste burning and biomass burning for cooking. While both these sources contribute significantly to poor urban air quality in India, open waste burning has garnered the attention of the Indian judiciary and resulted in the adoption of certain waste management solutions that negatively impact the livelihoods of the city’s poorest residents: waste pickers. Since the choice of cooking fuel correlates with income, meaning that a decrease in income results in increased dependence on cheaper but more polluting fuel sources, any changes in income in waste picker households means that they are more exposed to indoor air pollution. Drawing on survey data on waste picker households across Delhi, this study shows the impact of income loss on cookingfuel choice and shows how air pollution control interventions might not only worsen the indoor air quality for a particular section of the urban poor, they also undermine the government’s overall air pollution mitigation efforts.

What are the practical, day to day, implications of your study?
While air pollution most certainly needs to be mitigated, interventions targeting the problem can have unintended consequences that not only undermine their original intent of mitigation strategies, they can also be socio-economically detrimental for already marginalized people. On the surface, it appears that the adoption of technologies such as waste-to-energy can help alleviate some environmental burdens related to poor waste management. A closer look reveals that these technology choices can also result in livelihood deprivation for those who depend on recycling waste. While pro-poor policies such as the provision of subsidized clean fuels will help achieve positive public and environmental health outcomes, ensuring livelihood security will have even better outcomes.

How does your study relate to other work on the subject?
This paper draws upon and extends existing work on the class bias of the Indian judiciary and the concept of ‘bourgeois environmentalism’ by showing how the National Green Tribunal has connected the problem of air pollution to the problem of waste management. The paper also provides a better understanding of patterns and determinants of cooking fuel use among waste pickers, a specific community of the urban poor, adding to the literature on energy poverty.

What are two or three interesting findings that come from your study?
There are three main findings of this study. First, the National Green Tribunal, in targeting one source of air pollution—open waste burning—has recommended waste-to-energy technologies that deprive waste pickers of their livelihoods. Second, one of the consequences of income deprivation among waste pickers is a shift to using cheaper but more polluting solid fuels for cooking. Third, by recommending and adopting measures that target air pollution from poor waste management, environmental regulations have unwittingly and ironically increased exposure to air pollution for India’s waste pickers, the community that helps manage that waste through recycling.

What might be some of the theoretical implications of this study?
Theoretically, this paper contributes to a growing literature on the geography of air and atmosphere, as a means to analyze nature-society relations.

How does your research help us think about Geography?
Geography is a study of relations, particularly geospatial relations. This study argues for extending geography’s scope to examine aero-spatial relations, what some scholars have called aerography.

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