Since late October, large swathes of Punjab remain engulfed in toxic smog. Air quality indicators show high levels of particulate matter, with breathing conditions in urban areas ranging from highly unhealthy to very hazardous.
Readings from Lahore taken in the last week of October indicate the level of carbon monoxide at 21.29 milligram per metre (mpm) on Mall Road, 17.52 in Mohlanwal, and 6.94 in Gulberg’s Liberty Market. The maximum permissible limit under World Health Organization guidelines is 5 mpm.
This year, public outcry over the issue has been far more amplified. Citizens of Lahore are using social media to pressurise provincial and local government bodies.
Urdu news media is devoting greater attention to the hazard posed by the phenomenon, while there are a number of ongoing independent efforts to crowd source and publicise air quality readings.
As a whole, there is considerable urgency on part of the affected population as they try to get the government to deal with the issue as a public health emergency.
Read next: Is Punjab ready to tackle smog this year?
The government’s response to this pressure will be shaped by both its intention and its capability. On the former, it is reasonable to assume the government will want to address the problem.
This assumption is based on the fact that smog as a whole impacts a cross-section of the population, including middle and high-income households. Historically, issues confronting the elite are given greater consideration in public policy decision-making, not just in Punjab, but all over the world.
In fact, the Punjab government’s existing urban development agenda – ironically enough, a contributor to the ongoing smog epidemic – has long carried an elite bias, whether it’s in road infrastructure development, utilisation of public land, or enacting building regulations.
It is also true that social campaigns led by elite or middle-income citizens are more likely to garner positive attention from the government.
The most recent example was the campaign against fee hikes by high-cost private schools, which resulted in swift legislation and repeated assurances by provincial authorities.
The dengue epidemic from a few years ago was similar, in so far that it impacted both rich and poor households, and was thus tackled comprehensively in the face of heightened public pressure.
Contrast this with the relative lack of attention devoted to simmering issues, such as low-cost housing, water, sanitation, and public-sector health institutions, which overwhelmingly impact underprivileged households who have neither the tools to organise effectively, nor a truly representative voice in the political process.
Given that the government will likely want to respond in earnest, its capability dimension becomes much more important. Capability here includes a number of factors, such as ability to diagnose the problem, to mobilise public administration in a way to curtail it in the short run, and to undertake difficult and unpopular decisions to prevent it in the long run.
Diagnosing the problem requires un-blinkered scientific analysis that can highlight exactly what’s at work here. We need to know, in clear and precise terms, how much of this is because of crop-burning in both Punjabs, sand storms in the Middle East, motor vehicles on our roads, and emissions from factories and even residences.
If there’s another factor at play here, it needs to be identified and made public. At the very least, this will reduce public confusion, and maybe even encourage conscientious citizens to adopt socially beneficial practices, such as cutting down car and generator usage.
To date, the government’s short-term response has been to impose section 144 on crop-burning, increase vigilance of garbage burning and other harmful urban practices, and issue its official smog control policy.
These short-term measures are only as useful as the extent to which they’re implemented. That in turn is a question of directing a range of government departments staffed with often less-than-competent bureaucrats.
Unlike dengue, which included close coordination between the health department and district administration, tackling smog requires mobilising and monitoring officials from a number of historically under-funded institutions, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, at different tiers of government.
Given the generally decrepit condition of public sector governance, short-term measures are likely to experience patchy implementation, and residents of the province will continue to suffer for a few more weeks.
Lastly, it is apparent from extant analysis that the problem has germinated over years, and will take many more years to resolve. To this end, a long-run agenda for tackling environmental pollution is crucial, and remains the biggest litmus test of the provincial government.
An agenda of this nature would mean fighting off the influences and impulses that have contributed to this epidemic. It involves sustaining attention on an issue that will dissipate after a change in weather, only to return with vengeance next year.
It involves moving away from profiteering off real-estate development and infrastructure contracting, which have long remained the two guiding lights of municipal governance.
It means imposing regulations and investing in solutions that limit the kind of growth that has doubled the number of cars per 100 persons in Lahore in less than a decade.
It also entails stepping on the toes (and lifestyles) of many of those who’re currently vocal about the smog, given how the consumption and investment footprint of elite and middle-class households has contributed to the problem in a considerable way.
Fighting an environmental catastrophe is not just a test for the PML-N government over these two months, it is a larger test of whether the state is at all capable of diagnosing and tackling a multi-faceted problem on an urgent basis.
And finally, it is a test of whether their earnest intentions aside, our policymakers and state institutions are capable of instigating a period of difficult course correction in the face of overwhelming evidence.