IIT Hyderabad Researcher leads Air Pollution Governance study on Indian cities

Hyderabad: Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad Researcher Dr. Aalok Khandekar is coordinating an ‘Air Pollution Governance Across Cities Study’ (known as the 6+ Cities Study) to characterize how coordination between ‘understanding’ and ‘governing’ air pollution is happening in different cities. It also supports comparative insight and cross-city dialogue.

Originally, there were six cities in the study with research groups in Beijing, Bangalore, Houston, Philadelphia, New York City, and Albany, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, a US Government agency that supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering.

The study has now been expanded to include four more Indian cities including Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai and Pune besides Los Angeles as well. Research in India is being funded by the Azim Premji Foundation, India.

Research groups based in each city – as well as researchers focused on themes across cities – are coordinated out of the University of California Irvine, Department of Anthropology by Professors Kim Fortun and Mike Fortun. Dr. Aalok Khandekar, Assistant Professor of Anthropology/Sociology, Department of Liberal Arts, IIT Hyderabad, is coordinating the Research in India.

Speaking about the importance of this study and its outcomes, Dr. Aalok Khandekar said, “We want to understand how actors in different communities identify problems, produce and use relevant data, interpret and think creatively about that data, and are moved to action.”

Further, Dr. Aalok Khandekar added, “We hope to characterize a city’s air pollution governance style as an effect of the ways different communities involved in the city (local and beyond, including city, state and national government actors, residents, environmental activists, scientists in different disciplines) come together, prioritizing some things while discounting others. Our hope is that comparative perspective on air pollution governance styles will advance both fundamental understanding of environmental governance and practical work on the ground.”

Understanding and governing air pollution is complex due to the tension between economic and environmental priorities as environmental health stressors can be difficult to source and mitigate. The science involved is also multi-dimensional and difficult to translate into policy. Understanding and addressing air pollution thus requires remarkable coordination among different scientific fields, among different government agencies and scales of government, and between educational, research and government domains. The 6+ Cities research team works to characterize how such coordination happens (or not) starting at the city scale.

The ‘6+ Cities Study’ aims to characterize distinctive styles of environmental health and risk governance at the city scale. Through interviews, observation of public events, and analysis of media, government, non-governmental organisations and scientific reports, the study team is examining different stakeholder roles and perspectives, links between policy domains (especially environment, transportation, health, and education), and links across scale (urban, state, national, and international).

Air pollution has received escalating attention in recent years, with leading international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) identifying air pollution as the world’s largest single environmental health risk: WHO now attributes one out of every eight global deaths to air pollution exposure, a staggering 7 million premature deaths in 2012 (WHO 2015).

Highlighting the international collaboration involved in this project, Prof Kim Fortun, Department Chair in University of California Irvine’s Department of Anthropology, said, “This project is also an experiment in new forms of research collaboration and supporting digital infrastructure. What brings our team together is concern about environmental public health, with the knowledge and political regimes that make it so difficult to protect environmental public health, and with the intensive coordinational demands of environmental public health”.

Further, Prof Kim Fortun said, “Our work itself is an intensive coordination challenge, designed to teach us about the ways coordination and collaboration work and/or slip up. …One among many things we’ve learned is that collaboration breeds more collaboration. For instance, our work quickly came to need supporting technical infrastructure to archive, analyse, and publish the vast amounts of data and analysis that we were generating, which required other kinds of collaboration to design and build. This resulted in the ongoing development of the Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography (PECE), and the group that is designing and building PECE. The design of PECE has, in turn, itself required extensive research, partly carried out in collaboration with technologists in the Research Data Alliance (RDA), an international initiative to support research data sharing within and across fields.”

Prof Kim Fortun added, “We have also learnt – again and again– that non-technical dimensions of research infrastructure are also critical to its design and use. Different data sharing protocols, software licensing regimes, and data cultures, for example, dramatically shape how research communities come together (rarely without friction). Interconnecting distinctive systems — epistemological, social, cultural or technical – is both challenging, and can be done in different ways, with significantly different effects. We’ve also learned that this continues to surprise many people, and that “collaboration” is often treated monolithically, in both senses of the term – as something that recurs universally across instances, and as something without significant differentiation within. ‘Collaboration’ in popular understandings, continues to be an undiversified concept frame. Our research takes a different tack, analyzing closely and participating in different collaborative formations, striving to understand the differences that make a difference.”

The 6+ Cities Study is theoretically grounded in historical and anthropological studies of the sciences that have characterized the ‘thought styles’ of different scientific communities, and in the broad literature on ‘governance’ that accounts for increasing ways non-state actors and processes have de facto governing effects. The environment and cities have been key loci of attention in the governance literature, emphasizing the role of NGOs and commercial enterprises as non-state actors. The 6+ Cities project seeks to advance theorisation of governance through special attention to the role of scientific communities and organizations (including educational institutions) in governance processes.

The 6+ Cites study also has important methodological, archival, and educational commitments. Methodologically, the study models and advances capacity for multi-sited, internationally collaborative field research on education-to-science-to-policy pathways, which can be used to address a wide range of complex societal problems. The study also contributes to a growing archive of publicly accessible research material – including a rich set of ethnographic interviews – focused on environmental health sciences and politics around the world. The archive is part of The Asthma Files (http://theasthmafiles.org), an on-going project to build research infrastructure and capacity to understand the cultural dimensions of environmental health science and politics. Also in association with The Asthma Files, the 6+ Cities study includes an array of educational outreach initiatives, including programs for K-12 students, community education, and museum exhibits.