FOR several days now, the inhabitants of Lahore have been complaining about the toxic air they are forced to breathe. As the dreaded October-November smog — frequently referred to as the ‘fifth season’ — engulfs Lahore once again, the residents of Punjab’s largest city are becoming increasingly fed up and demanding accountability and answers for this gloomy state of affairs.
As has become routine for some years now, the smog is expected to last till January-February of the next year. Undoubtedly, the pollutant-filled air will leave immeasurable public health damage in its wake, largely affecting the lungs and hearts of citizens, with the elderly and small children being particularly vulnerable.
Of course, such a strain on public health resources, life expectancy and the general quality of life has deep repercussions for our already gasping economy. The outcry this time around even led Amnesty International to take notice of the situation. The international rights group has condemned the Pakistani government for its failure to protect the lives of its citizens, qualifying it as a human rights issue.
Additionally, the lack of monitoring devices to measure air quality in real time makes matters even murkier, leading to disagreements about the exact figures and scale of the disaster.
Even though the outdoor air quality is said to have exceeded 550 on the Air Quality Index — which is quantified as hazardous — the minister of state for climate change downplayed the fears of concerned citizens in her recent address, saying the situation was being blown out of proportion due to ‘vested interests’.
She repeated a thus far commonly held belief that the smog was entering the country by way of our neighbour India, with the farmers there engaging in stubble-burning right before the harvesting season. While this is certainly part of the reason, a recent report by the Agriculture Department and UNFAO finds that most of the air pollution is likely to be locally created.
Meanwhile, environmentalists hold the transport sector, local manufacturing and agricultural industries that operate on substandard fuel quality chiefly responsible for the smog created each winter.
While the government has taken steps to address the issue, and these were pointed out by the minister, clearly not enough is being done on the ground to encourage sustainable changes. The seriousness of the threat posed by air pollution along with its long-term consequences cannot be downplayed.
Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2019