Punjab govt declares smog a calamity

Published October 7, 2021
Smog starts blanketing the city lowering visibility and causing breathing issues. — White Star
Smog starts blanketing the city lowering visibility and causing breathing issues. — White Star

LAHORE: As smog reemerges in the provincial capital and the city’s air quality is declared ‘very unhealthy’, the authorities have woken up to the phenomenon and decided to take certain actions to control it.

The US Consulate Lahore’s monitor recorded Air Quality Index (AQI) score between 223 and 231 from 8am to 10am on Wednesday after which the quality improved slightly to ‘unhealthy’ levels by the night.

Responding to the situation, the Punjab government declared the phenomenon a calamity and directed the administrative secretaries concerned, commissioners and deputy commissioners (DCs) to make concerted efforts for mitigation of this health hazard across the province. The DCs have already been delegated powers of the relief commissioner to take all necessary measures to control smog.

Since at least 2014, smog has been a routine affair in the provincial capital from October to January. In November last year, smog levels reached hazardous levels in Punjab with Faisalabad and Lahore even topping the list of world’s most polluted cities. Till February this year, Lahore was among the most polluted cities in the world with the city’s AQI score exceeding 500 to hazardous levels.

While the authorities are quick to point out incorrect readings by air quality monitors and stubble burning in Indian Punjab being behind the alarming smog levels, environmental experts stress that it’s one of the causes, and not the only. Experts as well as UN and World Bank reports have placed the transport sector as the biggest contributor to pollution in Punjab, followed by the industry and agriculture.

The Punjab Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) had been repeatedly instructed to contain crop burning, but the practice continues unabated as the government has been unable to ban it completely.

Another measure the government has been struggling with is ensuring conversion of all brick kilns to zigzag technology. In the last few years, the government cracked down on kilns not converting to the new technology by ordering they be shut down for at least a month, however those efforts never produced the desired results as several kilns continued to operate.

Punjab’s Environment Protection Department also failed to follow the Smog Commission’s recommendations from 2018 to procure the required number of air quality monitors.

Experts had also expressed concerns over the lack of action on Punjab relief commissioner’s recommendations in October 2020 to ban stubble burning, vehicle emissions beyond admissible limits, disallow industries without emission controls and brick kilns operating on the old technology by the end of the year. Except for ordering conversion of brick kilns to zigzag technology and imposing fines on polluting vehicles, the remaining recommendations were largely ignored by the authorities.

The PDMA acknowledges that the relief commissioner had imposed a complete ban on burning crop residue and other such activities that may cause air pollution in the province. The Punjab Local Government Act 2019 also instructs all municipal authorities and waste management companies to ensure water sprinkling on roads, streets and construction sites producing fugitive dust.

The PDMA also directs that only zigzag brick kilns are allowed to operate in the province and any violation is to be slapped with a fine of Rs50,000 to Rs100,000 under a Lahore High Court order. The court had also imposed a fine of Rs50,000 on any person caught in the act of stubble burning.

It has asked the administrative secretaries concerned to issue strict directions to the respective field formations for making concerted efforts for smog mitigation and implementation of order of the relief commissioner.

All the DCs have been requested to ensure implementation of the orders of the relief commissioner in letter and spirit. They have also been requested to exercise powers of the relief commissioner and impose fines as directed by the LHC on the persons involved in stubble burning.

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) director general has been requested to ensure strict action against the brick kilns violating rules as per the LHC and relief commissioner’s orders.

The activities causing air pollution have been identified as vehicles emitting visible smoke and pollutants falling into inadmissible limits; industries without emission control systems; stone crushers operating without wet scrubbers; burning of all types of solid waste, tyres, rubber and plastics; sale and use of sub-standard fuels; encroachments that cause hindrance to smooth flow of traffic; parking that may obstruct the traffic flow; activities without proper safeguards that contribute to generating fugitive dust; uncovered and open dumping/storage of construction material; and uncovered transportation of construction material like sand, soil and cement.

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2021

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