November 10, 2019

By Xari Jalil


When Afshan Bibi, a resident of Lahore’s Chungi Amar Sadhu – a factory area – had her child, she was alarmed to see how underweight he was. The infant was so tiny that doctors feared he would not be able to survive. The child however was able to beat the odds, but at a cost – as he grew older, it became apparent that he suffered from multiple developmental issues.

Afshan claimed that she has always tried to take care of things when she was pregnant,  however she did not pause to consider one exceptional thing: she lived in the vicinity of a factory that emits toxic gasses all year round. In fact , Afshan herself is a patient of respiratory illnesses.

Though air pollution is a year-round phenomenon, it is smog that Lahore is most concerned with – sometimes referred to as the city’s fifth season. Multiple theories about the causes as well as possible solutions of smog in Lahore have come forward throughout the years, but the Punjab Government has no other answer than trans-boundary pollution. Therefore it cannot be controlled. And therefore, it is not a concern of the Punjab Government.

However, the government fails to understand that it is very much a local concern, as it affects the populace in ways that violates their fundamental human rights.

This year again, smog levels hit 800 on the Air Quality Index, an indication of severe air pollution. A thick blanket of a gray smoke and dust hung low over the city, deteriorating respiratory health and therefore quality of life. Whatever the cause for it may be, the fact that the Government is not doing enough to protect its citizens has become a human rights concern. And Amnesty International has taken notice of this.

“Air pollution exacerbates existing inequalities and paves the way for human rights violations,” said Rimmel Mohydin of Amnesty International. “If authorities continue to stall making concerted efforts to address the smog crisis, it will continue to devastate human life.”

Pakistan’s urban air pollution is among the worst in the world. Air pollution has emerged as a major health issue in the country and is responsible for approximately 60,000 deaths every year due to rising levels of fine particulate matter in the air, known as PM2.5 – the most dangerous, as it cannot be expelled from the body. Because of the high levels of air pollution in the country, Pakistan is ranked among one of the deadliest places in the world, according to a 2016 report by WHO.

According to the World Bank’s report titled, ‘Cleaning Pakistan’s Air: Policy Options to Address the Cost of Outdoor Air Pollution’ the impact of air pollution is causing almost 5,000,000 cases of illness among children each year.

Asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections and heart problems and shortened life expectancy are just some of the effects, but doctors have shown that air pollution has an adverse effect on mental health as well as brain growth.

“We have seen terrible results as lead levels grow,” says Dr Naheed Ahmed a psychiatrist with a private practice. “Brain growth becomes slow in children, and this has an effect from even before birth. Particulate matter of 2.5 micrograms is carried from the mother’s bloodstream and passed on to the baby.” She says children who live in most polluted areas such as Afshan Bibi were a glaring example of how their children were at most risk. 

In fact information collected by some doctors of the Children’s Hospital Lahore, found that over the years the number of sick children have been increasing drastically.

For example in 2008 there were 436,757 patients admitted. In 2018 there were 814,434 patients – the number has almost doubled.

The number of children presenting with hyperactive airway disease to Pediatric Pulmonology OPD has grossly increased over the last 10 years – from 4478 in 2008 to 11,750 in 2018.

This is why students from schools and colleges gathered at the Lahore High Court last week and filed a writ petition. 

The petition says that the AQI measurement system by the Government conflicts with the US AQI that has been employed by the United States Environment Protection Agency (US EPA) and is a standard. 

“The Punjab Environmental Quality Standards for Ambient Air has set its own benchmarks which are very lenient if compared to international standards,” says Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer, and a parent of one of the petitioners. “It underreports the severity of the air pollution and ends up in actually exposing the general public to unacceptable levels of dangerous air quality.”

A reading that on the US AQI would have been read as ‘Unhealthy’, is therefore being read as ‘Satisfactory’ by local monitors. 

For Rafay Alam, and several other environmental activists, the problem does not lie in just the ‘smog season’. Rather smog is just a symptom. The problem they say is in the year-long air pollution that is emitted from industries and vehicles etc. 

“Air pollution across Punjab remains at public health emergency levels for half the year,” said Abid Omar, founder of Pakistan Air Quality Initiative, an air monitoring system he has formed. 

“Yet there is no significant will by the Government to address this issue.”

Despite the fact that a study by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has proved that the transport sector is the biggest contributor with regard to air pollution, followed by industries, the Punjab Government continues to subject its citizens to toxic air quality by not addressing many aspects.

This includes lack of monitoring by the Punjab Environment Protection Authority and its Department (EPD), lack of crackdown on polluting factories, no writ in terms of polluting brick kilns, and stubble burning in rural areas, little or no inspection of motor vehicles, etc. There is also no air quality meter reading on display to inform citizens of what quality air they are breathing – which is a public right. 

Meanwhile, as the Punjab Government uses delaying tactics to address a life threatening issue affecting all its citizens’ day in and out, and does not fully implement the Punjab Environmental Quality Standards that has directed to them by the court itself, in 2017, children the elderly, and pregnant women are most at risk, with the pollution being equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes a day.