White Star
White Star

LAHORE: A thick layer of toxic haze continues gripping the province, especially Lahore, and places it on the top of world’s most polluted cities list – defying all official measures and threatening people’s quality of life and even the life itself.

On Tuesday, all monitoring stations in the city registered air quality index (AQI) at around 200 – almost four times of what World Health Organisation (WHO) considers relatively safe reading. In the last few weeks it has at times touched 400 mark as well.

A seasonal combination of low temperature, lack of wind, vehicular and industrial pollution and dust particles cause spike in air pollutants. Over 120 million Lahorites complained of irritation in eyes, itchy throats and breathing issues as air turned dense and AQI crosses 200 mark. A recent American study claimed “living in lethal Lahore for a year can reduce life by seven years.”

A study on air pollution by the Punjab two years ago apportioned the blames: 45 per cent went to the vehicular traffic, 26pc to stubble burning, 15pc to industry and the rest to dust and household waste burning. Of all three major sources, two (vehicles and industry) are constant. Only stubble burning is seasonal, which, along with lower temperature, deteriorates air to “unhealthy and hazardous” level. So, controlling this seasonal contributor is crucial.

“The satellite imagery of both Punjabs clarifies the reason behind this crisis. Both of them look like burning pots; eastern Punjab much more and western part a little less, but still on fire. With wind blowing nine to 27 kilometers across both Punjabs, the damage is spread equally. On Monday alone, agriculture department sent 297 fire incidents to its field staff for verification and fines,” explains an official involved in stubble burning control effort.

“Stubble burning is restricted to rice areas, where farmers put rice stubs to fire and prepare land for wheat sowing. During the last few years, as the provincial agriculture shifted to three-crop cycle, rice – a three-month short crop of hybrid variety has fit in nicely. Its acreage more than doubled in the last one decade – from three million acres – largely restricted to basmati belt of central Punjab – to current 6.4m acres that is spread across the length and breadth of the province – and so is stubble burning. The satellite images of the province now depict the true scale of the problem,” explains Muhammad Arif – a newly-turned rice farmer from south Punjab.

The agriculture department fines Rs15,000, if bribe, political, social references and intimidation fail. Clearing dozens of acres through machines cost much more. So, burning is worth risking for economic reasons, he says and advises: “The only solution is promoting farm mechanisation – harvesting and chopping through machines. Otherwise, rice is now only second to wheat crop and no amount of threat is going to work and the agriculture department is the last one to do it given its thin and sporadic presence in the field.”

Instead of containing the menace, the provincial government, however, seems to be contributing to the problem. For example, its development work in Lahore has become major policy goof-up in the last few weeks. One of the major thoroughfares, which takes entire heavy traffic – Bund Road – is now dug up, sending massive amount of dust in the air and pushing traffic in other narrow arteries. The GT Road is having a flyover at Shahdara and pollutes suburban Lahore. In order to smoothen access to the DHA, three major roads leading up this posh area are now seeing building of underpasses and flyover. Amid this chaos, someone had the idea of making Shaukat Khanum Hospital road signal-free and started development work. As if all this was not enough, it was decided to raise Walton Road by two feet. This development work, which should have started either after the smog period and completed before it, is now playing havoc with the city environment.

Development work timing is not the only problem, which the government is making worse. Vehicular traffic is yet another, where the government is not helping either. Old vehicles, especially those belonging to government organisations like Lahore Municipal Corporation, Lahore Waste Management Company, Water and Sanitation Agency etc. are plying the roads freely – without fear of fines. The ‘ill-equipped’ traffic wardens are hardly a force that can check around 6.2m vehicles swarming overloaded city roads. In addition to this, over 600,000 vehicles come to Lahore daily and pollute the city. Though, there are six four-member squads for checking health of vehicles, they can hardly play a role given the enormity of task.

“It all boils down to weak governance and weaker writ of the government,” claims Chaudhry Jawad, a lawyer from the city.

The provincial government neither has the infrastructure to implement its order nor manpower. The environment department, which is supposed to be leading the fight against the hazard, has only six inspectors for Lahore, Jawad says. With the city divided in nine towns, each of them is supposed to inspect, regulate and control one-and-a-half town. Is it humanly possible? Of course not!

During the last few years, the Punjab government had claimed that all brick kilns in the province had been shifted to relatively safe Zigzag technology. This year, the environment department is reporting that it has acted against 11,234 brick kilns for violating the methodology. The sheer number of violators, who have been caught, tell the scale of official writ.

Since the issue is so big, impacts lives of each and every human living in the province, the government just wanted to be seen doing something about it. To its misfortune, cosmetic measures do not work. So, each year smog visits us, sends thousands scrambling for hospitals and kills a few before fizzling out and government forgets it, he laments.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2023

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