Despite nearly a decade of experiencing smog during the winter in the provincial capital, it seems that the government has accepted its failure to combat air pollution by dedicating a season to it, now known as smog-season, instead of enacting measures to make Lahore’s air breathable again.

The city’s first rodeo with smog was reported back in November of 2015 and ever since then Lahore’s air quality has only gone downhill as it has become a regular in the 10 most polluted cities of the world list. And this year is no different. Air Quality Index (AQI) readings since the start of November show that the highest pollution levels in the city have been recorded at Gulberg, Polo Ground, Pakistan Engineering Services Headquarters, and Mall Road.

And just like previous years, the solutions proposed to combat the community-wide polluted air by the provincial government are also not any different. For instance, a mask mandate is being enforced, businesses are being told to shut down earlier than usual, schools and workplaces are being asked to remain closed on Fridays and Saturdays.

Anila Kausar, a resident of the Cantt area in Lahore, feels that the tried and tested stopgap measures are disproportionate and will not bear any fruit. “The city’s smog crisis gave me respiratory issues and the government’s inefficiency in combating it will lead to many others developing the same illnesses,” predicted the 44-year-old.

“I do not know how any of us will survive in this air,” she added.

Kausar’s fears are not misplaced. As per a report of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, breathing smoggy air can be hazardous because smog contains ozone, a pollutant that can harm our health when there are elevated levels in the air we breathe. The report further states that ozone can irritate the respiratory system, reduce lung function, aggravate asthma, inflame and damage the lining of the lung, and aggravate chronic lung diseases, such as emphysema and bronchitis.

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Khalida Tariq, a 60-year-old, who resides in the Garhi Shahu area of the city, which has clocked AQI readings of 200 and above since the start of November, is presently feeling the effects of smog that the report highlights. “I have some underlying conditions but as soon as smog-season starts I find it hard to breathe, start getting lethargic, and just pray for this menace to end,” an irate Tariq informed.

And presently it seems that only divine intervention can end the city’s smog crisis because provincial governments past and present have found it hard to decrease the dependence on the city’s foremost contributor to air pollution - transport. According to a report of the autonomous and technical arm of the Punjab government, the Urban Unit, 83.15 per cent of Lahore’s air pollution is due to transport. 9.07 per cent is due to industries, 3.9 per cent due to agriculture, 3.6 per cent due to trash burning, 0.14 per cent due to commercial activities, and 0.11 per cent due to domestic activities.

Nevertheless, Dawar Butt, an expert on environmental public policy, feels that mere mortals could also effectively curb the air pollution crisis if they were willing to do so. “In nearly a decade of experiencing smog we now know that transport, industries, and power plants are the main culprits. As far as transport is concerned, the provincial government needs to end people’s reliance on their own vehicles by connecting the entirety of the city with public transport,” suggested Butt.

When pointed out that the government had tried to end this dependence in the past but had failed to do so, Butt was of the view that the planning and execution had been poor. “Public transport fares should be reduced during peak hours, special discount cards should be issued for students and senior citizens, and public transport should offer free or affordable services on weekends for entertainment purposes,” the public policy expert explained, adding that practical initiatives revolving around increasing the reliance on public transport were long-term solutions which would help improve air quality instead of the stopgap solutions the Punjab government implemented every year.

“Moreover, the three sectors [transport, industries, and power plants] also exacerbate the air quality crisis by relying on substandard fuel. Our neighbour India, has moved to Euro-5 and Euro-6 quality fuel, whereas we are still stuck using Euro-2. We have to make the usage of high quality fuel mandatory,” he added.

Aleem Butt, the Director of an organisation working on Lahore’s environment, agrees. “Smart lockdowns, fines for factories and kiln owners, vehicle seizures, and extra school holidays are short-term solutions. While beneficial, these measures lack permanence,” he asserted.

“Addressing substandard fuel use in vehicles and industries and creating separate industrial zones away from urban populations is imperative to avoid recurring problems.”

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However, in the absence of such measures residents of Lahore might have to accept smog as just another season and make do with the stopgap solutions. In doing so, Lahoris will also have to put up with experiencing respiratory issues during the entirety of the smog-season every year, as per Dr Sajid Rashid, Principal Professor of the College of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Punjab University. “There are numerous health risks associated with Lahore’s hazardous air, which has a particulate matter (PM) 2.5 concentration more than 40 times the recommended World Health Organisation (WHO) annual air quality guideline value,” explained Dr Rashid, “if residents of this city start treating this as normal then they are agreeing to having a shorter life span.”

Nonetheless, Arsalan Ahmed, who works for a software company in Lahore, is not okay with having a shorter life span just due to the government’s inefficiency and negligence. “The government instead of enforcing successful measures like work from home is relying on absurd measures which it knows no one will follow,” critiqued Ahmed, further stating that working from home had proven to be effective during the coronavirus and would also prove effective in reducing smog.

Data obtained by the Express Tribune from the Meteorological Department Lahore backs Ahmed’s assertions, as air quality in Lahore improved significantly during the lockdown imposed in 2020 due to the coronavirus. The AQI readings from the lockdown period, from 26th of February to 31st of August 2020, recorded a minimum of 45 AQI and a maximum of 76 AQI.

Given the high levels of air quality in 2020, Noreen Fatima, a student of a private university in Lahore, believes that schools should also switch to online classes instead of just being closed on Fridays and Saturdays. “There is no reason to subject students to toxic air when the online method of instructing has worked before,” remarked Fatima, further adding that teaching online would mean that a significant chunk of students who travel in vehicles to schools and universities would not be using the vehicles. “Hence, resulting in a decline in transport related pollution.”

Muhammad Ejaz, who drops and picks his children daily from schools, finds wisdom in Fatima’s suggestion. “Instead of the government asking students to show up to school in masks, making them study at home is a better solution,” he said.

Even if the provincial government were to pay no heed to shutting schools in favour of online education and insisted on its mask mandate, Dr Salman Kazmi, the General Secretary of the Young Doctors Association, believes that masks do precious little to curb the harmful effects of smog. “Only the N-95 masks will offer respite against smog but no one is going to buy those because of the high cost. Therefore, the government’s vision is incredibly limited if it feels that normal surgical masks will help in combating air pollution induced respiratory illnesses,” said Dr Kazmi matter-of-factly.

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In light of Dr Kazmi’s revelations, when quizzed about the mask mandate, the caretaker provincial minister for health, Dr Javed Akram, conceded that only N-95 masks could significantly control the effects of smog, whereas surgical masks could not completely prevent smog exposure.

Since stopgap solutions are not going to help rid Lahore of its smog crisis, the provincial capital is in dire need of research-backed policies to make the city’s air breathable again, as per Butt, the environmental policy expert. In this regard, the Express Tribune spoke to the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s (PML-N) General Secretary, Ahsan Iqbal, regarding the party’s glaring inattention towards the city’s polluted air, despite considering it as its political fort. “Our recently constituted manifesto committee is working on proposals for the smog issue and how it can be eliminated. We are aware of how important a clean atmosphere is for our voters and Lahore’s residents,” claimed Iqbal.

The Express Tribune also spoke to Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, Spokesperson of the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP), which is also vying for Punjab’s Chief Ministerial slot, regarding the party’s lack of attention towards the air pollution crisis. “We realise the importance of having a clean environment and we will work towards making Punjab’s air breathable again,” assured Dr Awan.

However, Butt feels that politicians only make hollow promises. “A Smog Commission was constituted on the directions of the Lahore High Court, which after examining the causes of air pollution and smog, formulated long-term and short-term proposals, but most of the recommendations of the commission have never been considered or implemented,” he informed.

Butt’s opinion holds weight as some of the Smog Commission’s recommendations regarding transport included making public transport mandatory for 75 per cent of students in educational institutions and regulating vehicle usage on specific days according to their number plates but none saw light of day.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2023.

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