The choking lungs of both Punjabs

Smog is a shared problem between India and Pakistan

5delhi (File) A car makes its way through the heavy smog in New Delhi | Reuters

The “toxic” air that we are breathing is now transcending borders and affecting many lives. Smog is a common cause for concern, as both Indians and Pakistanis are severely affected. They are breathing the same toxic air, which is causing severe health issues. The situation is only getting worse with each passing year. Delhi ranks ahead of Lahore even as both cities top the list of the most-polluted cities of the world.

In response to the alarming situation, the Delhi government reportedly considered inducing artificial rain to counter smog, but it could not bring it to fruition. The Aam Aadmi Party government also derived an odd-even formula for vehicles in order to reduce pollution levels, but there was no data to prove the efficacy of the experiment.

IIT Kanpur undertook an experiment last year, wherein a Cessna aircraft was flown  with cloud-seeding attachments. "These attachments were procured from a manufacturer in the US and the modifications in the aircraft were approved by the manufacturers of Cessna and the DGCA. The test flight spread the agents using a flare as is standard practice," the institute said in a press release.

Similarly, going without rain for long, Lahore, too, saw its air quality index (AQI) touching the dangerous level of 450 on December 16, 2023. It was 30 times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum average daily exposure. As a result, the Punjab government had to declare a ‘smog emergency’ in Lahore and nearby districts. Schools were shut, markets closed and face masks were made mandatory. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, the government made arrangements to induce artificial rain in Lahore to provide temporary relief from the hazardous effects of poor air quality. 

The Punjab government used cloud seeding to create rain in 10 locations around Lahore using a small Cessna plane with the UAE’s cooperation. Citizens experienced shower-like rain in different locations. Environment Minister in Punjab, Bilal Afzal, claimed that cloud seeding and artificial rain was introduced for the first time and it was a success. He, however, admitted that the rainfall was minimal and scanty. Although the air quality of Lahore improved significantly and the AQI dropped to 150, the minister said that the benefits of this rain were short-lived as the pollution was back to square one after two to three days. 

Hazardous air quality is not limited to Lahore. The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution estimates that every year, air pollution steals 9 million lives, 2 per cent of the GDP and 7 per cent of health care costs, globally. It reported that 1.28 lakh Pakistanis die annually from air pollution-related illnesses.

An air quality life index study suggests that since 1998, average annual particulate pollution has increased by 20 per cent, cutting 0.9 years from the lives of an average Pakistani over these years. The most-polluted areas of the country are in northeast Punjab and northern Sindh, where residents would gain over five years of life if particulate pollution could be permanently reduced, according to WHO guidelines.

Punjab, be it in the Indian side or in Pakistan, starts experiencing periods of low visibility from October and this continues till February. This is commonly referred to as smog (combined from smoke and fog). The intensity, duration and spatial extent of these events have increased over the last few years. Smog causes severe health problems such as burning and irritation of the eyes and other respiratory problems. Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air causes various complications such as asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections, stroke and shortened life expectancy. 

Dr Pratibha Jha, senior resident at the department of pulmonary medicine, PGIMER, Chandigarh, said, “While smog is a common problem in this part of the country during winters, certain measures at an individual level can reduce exposure and ill-effects. These measures include restricting yourself indoors on worse AQI days, avoiding heavy traffic lanes while commuting, and avoiding exercising outdoors. Kids should not be allowed to play outside. Burning firewood, especially a problem in rural India, should be avoided. Air filters at home and masks while going out are a few helpful measures.” 

Dr Atif Kazmi, senior consultant at the Lahore University Teaching Hospital, advised citizens to avoid coming in contact with smog, as it could cause breathing difficulties and infections. He said wearing face masks and staying inside were the two easiest ways to avoid rushing to hospitals with respiratory issues, eye infections and skin diseases.

Considering growing concerns regarding smog and its serious effects on health, the Lahore high court also took cognisance of the fact and constituted a ‘smog commission’. After considerable discussions and thorough research, the commission submitted its reports to the high court, which identified an interesting fact. The report stated: “The Indo-Gangetic plains, composed of the Indus (areas in Pakistan and parts of Punjab and Haryana in India) and the Gangetic plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, have been identified as one of the most-polluted regions due to high aerosol concentration and a related episode of haze, fog and smog.”

The report said, and experts agreed that the main causes for smog and air pollution were vehicular and industrial emissions, dust clouds, fossil fuel-fired power plants. Coal being burned by thousands of brick kilns spread across the province contributes to the problem. A Food and Agriculture Organization’s study in 2020 singled out power producers, industry and the transport sector in particular as culprits. Waste burning is considered another source of smog. It includes burning of solid wastes, rice stubble and sugarcane fields. Various studies have linked smog to the burning of rice stubble in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. During 2016 alone, around 32 metric tonnes of paddy stubble was estimated to have been burnt in the Punjab. In Pakistan’s side of Punjab, too, the practice of burning stubble is very common among farmers before the wheat cultivation season.

Mohit Khanna, a senior journalist who specialises  in agriculture and environment issues, said: “As per the Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) (India) there is a 30 per cent decline in stubble-burning cases this year (2023). The management has improved along with the link between consumers and farmers. The farmers have been given many viable options, too. There are arrangements to store paddy stubble in a big way and so far private traders who are selling it to industrial units have managed 3 to 5 million metric tonnes of paddy residue. Even though alternative options are being provided, farmers won’t shift to other crops as rice yield is huge and they get MSP on it. Two varieties of rice, propagated by the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, take less duration to mature and give better and timely yield. This saves water as well. So, promoting short-duration varieties is the way forward.” 

Asif Mahmood, a senior Pakistani journalist, said the Pakistani government had no authentic research and data on smog. Only two stations are working in Lahore to monitor air quality. However, the Punjab government started uploading air quality data on its website daily after the high court’s order. Mahmood said smog was a common and shared problem between India and Pakistan and that it should be dealt with seriously. He said multiple forums were available between the two countries so the issue of smog could be discussed to avoid blame-games and stubble-burning allegations against each other.

Gopal Singh, a political activist and a farmer from Amritsar, said a strict ban had been imposed on stubble burning, but most farmers still violated the law and burnt paddy crop remains to clear the fields for the next crop, wheat. As a result, people start experiencing breathing issues from the polluted air. Ahbab Singh Grewal, spokesperson for the AAP government in Punjab, said the share of stubble burning in smog was 17 per cent. He said his government was not only encouraging a ban on stubble burning, but also incentivising farmers to sell stubble to public sector powerhouses run by the government. “We have stated a policy, wherein the AAP government is discouraging farmers from sowing rice crops in the state to save water and environment,” he said. 

Pakistani experts, citing the recommendations of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad, said air pollution in Pakistan was a complicated challenge, and some concrete steps must be taken to protect public health and the environment. Among the list of long-term actionable solutions proposed for the reduction of smog and improve air quality are: ban on substandard fuel, promotion of hybrid and electric vehicles and increasing public transport, production of renewable energy to get rid of fossil fuels, management of industrial pollution, monitoring of recycling, increasing tree plantation and incentivising research and development in the field of smog and zero tolerance on stubble and waste burning.

Syed Mohammad Ali, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, who also teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities, wrote in Foreign Policy  on Lahore air pollution, detailing the city’s choking hazard. “In the absence of comprehensive and concerted efforts to combat air pollution, Lahore, once known as the ‘city of gardens’ is tragically choking on toxic air. Instead of looking forward to the welcome reprieve of winter months, Lahore’s 13 million residents now must brace themselves for another bout of smog, which has acquired the status of a fifth season.”

Rafay Alam, an activist and lawyer from Pakistan, said it would not be correct to say that stubble burning was the only major cause for smog. He referred to a Pakistani study which found that vehicular and industrial emissions were the two main contributors of smog in the region. He said no short-term solutions were going to work and that environmental issues could not be solved by ad-hoc policies such as closing schools and businesses, spraying water on roads or cloud seeding, etc. He said  long-term planning and implementation of concrete strategies were the only way forward.

With an alarming situation arising every year, especially during the winter months, it is imperative for the governments of both countries to sit down and work out a solution. Otherwise the day is not far off when this will turn into a pandemic where residents of both countries will be seen outside hospitals, gasping for fresh air.

The authors are alumni of the East-West Centre Journalists’ exchange programme.


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