Before we all suffocate

I was too young in 1998 to have been able to understand the competitiveness at display when India undertook ‘Operation Shakti’ by conducting five nuclear explosions, and Pakistan immediately responding with ‘Chagai-I’ and ‘Chagai-II’ that involved conducting six nuclear explosions. Fast forward almost two decades, and I was very well equipped to understand the repeat of that competitiveness when with every Line of Control (LOC) violation by India, Pakistan was willing and able to return the favour two fold. All this pales into insignificance in the face of arguably one of the worst ever environment-related calamities in the form of smog. It is understood that smog is a combination of smoke and fog that commonly presents itself in areas with high levels of coal burning. In the case of the current smog engulfing parts of India and Pakistan, especially New Delhi and Lahore, it is understood to be a combination of multiple air pollutants termed as PM 2.5 that are considered the worst as these are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Excessive exposure to these PM 2.5 particles can lead to lung, heart and multiple other organ-related diseases that may steadily surface in the years to come. According to the science journal The Lancet, about half a million Indians died prematurely in 2015 due to PM 2.5. Pakistan has its own set of worries, where according to a World Health Organization (WHO) estimate, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died in 2015 alone, one of the world’s highest death tolls, from air pollution. Bear in mind, this latest episode is considerably worse than what we experienced in 2015.

New Delhi made headlines around the world only two weeks ago when the Indian Medical Association (IMA) declared a health emergency in India. The government of India was quick to respond by closing down all schools temporarily, shutting down all major factories that could have contributed further to the smog, heavy vehicles were barred from entering the capital and those that persisted were heavily fined, and people were directed to remain inside their homes and temporarily halt visits to the park – as parks and public recreational facilities were sealed, in New Delhi. Surprisingly across the border, Lahore was able to initially maintain a low profile eventhough as per the Air Quality Indicator (AQI) readings Lahore exceeded New Delhi in terms of PM 2.5 present in the environment. New Delhi’s PM 2.5 levels were seen to rise as high as 40 times the level deemed safe by WHO, with the AQI reading showing 420ug/m3. In contrast, the worst Air Quality reading in the world was noted in Lahore, at 538ug/m3 and has remained between 450-500ug/m3. Despite Lahore being worse off, the response by the authorities has been slow and at best luke-warm compared to New Delhi’s short-term health emergency measures. The initial response was restricted to reducing school timings, closing down parts of the motorway and highways and suspending flight at the Lahore airport. As the smog is expected to clear out soon, with Met Department reporting expected rainfall across the country, Pakistan government is starting to come up with further measures. More than a week after the smog had enveloped Lahore, Environment Protection department was able to seal 250 industrial units, which utilize poor coal, tires and other such fuels, take action against some 21,000 vehicles, and most importantly, ban under section 144 the burning of crop roots and stubs.

Punjab government, and consequently the federal government, appear to have reacted too late, but they are starting to realize the short-term goals. The real struggle lies ahead in resolving the issue of smog, that is not new for us and could very well be termed as a ‘fifth season’ for parts of Pakistan, given its yearly presence at the start of winter season. Punjab government recently sent out a Tweet to the provincial government of Indian Punjab, which is seen by most to be the primary culprit for the unprecedented levels of smog through the practice of crop burning. The Punjab government asked India to play a bigger and better role in resolving the issue and citizens on both sides have lauded this diplomatic exchange. Further dialogue and engagement will be required between the two countries, if we are to do away with this deadly ‘fifth season’. Introspection on part of the Punjab government, nevertheless, remains more important. The continued and extensive felling of trees across Lahore and Pakistan, to accommodate new infrastructure ventures has to be re-examined. Regardless of where the problem originated, be it in North-Western India due to large-scale crop burning or in Middle East due to sand storms, the first line of defense on the environment front are trees and vegetation and these need to be protected and reforestation schemes need to be developed. Crop burning in Pakistan that takes place annually during November, needs to be managed in a way that burning is strictly prohibited, and the crop waste is disposed off properly and does not become a liability for the farmers. Greater awareness should be created amongst the masses to favorably alter their lifestyles. Vehicles and industries need to also be closely regulated to ensure minimal emissions. The idealist in me hopes for cooperation between the states, but if the realist is to speak and if there is to be competition between the two, then let it be in a healthier capacity. Let Pakistan Government go one better.

By Raja Safiullah
SPEARHEAD RESEARCH

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