Monday August 15, 2022

Life without sunshine

November 12, 2019

For weeks we have not seen the sun in Lahore. There is light without sunshine, diffused as through a dull haze. And we are trudging along as if this is the norm, an inevitable part of our fate.

In Lahore, nobody cares enough to even tell us what we are living through but we can get some sense from the news filtering out of Delhi – so near and yet so far – where the chief minister has labelled the city a ‘gas chamber.’ A public health emergency has been declared, five million masks are being distributed in schools which have been closed for two days, construction work has been halted for a week, an odd-even scheme imposed to cut traffic pollution, and many firms are advising their employees to stay home.

The level of dangerous particulates in the air is about 20 times the maximum specified by the World Health Organization. The particulate matter PM2.5 that affects the lungs has reached 533 micrograms per cubic metre in the city while WHO recommends that it not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic metre on average per day.

What the levels are in Lahore we don’t know. What they are doing to us we don’t know. We do know from the science learnt in schools that if plants do not get sunshine, they cannot produce chlorophyll and will lose their green colour and eventually die. Is something similar happening to us that we are unaware of? Are we swallowing some poisons that will turn us sallow and consign us to premature deaths?

The irony in all this is that we know very well the main cause of this condition. In the case of Delhi, half the pollution, visible from satellite photos, is due to stubble smoke (“a lethal cocktail of particulate matter, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide”) generated by farmers burning crop residues to clear their fields in neighbouring states – “more than two million farmers burn 23 million tonnes of crop residue on some 80,000 sq km of farmland in northern India every winter.” This is surely a cause that can be addressed by policy measures especially when the health of millions is at stake.

Why is there such a stark lack of urgency to act on this environmental catastrophe and to initiate the obvious policy measures that would mitigate it to a considerable extent? Why is this not a subject of urgent debate in the hallways of power?

One can’t help but think that in Pakistan we are confronted with an even more vicious malady. One can’t help but think that our politics itself is a politics without sunshine. For decades we have been enveloped in the noxious fumes of pollutants in the form of politicians and various species of their hangers-on. These polluting agents have been sucking the life out of us, going about the business of enriching themselves without a care for our wellbeing. We may be ravaged by smog or floods or earthquakes or dirty water or fecal contamination or malnutrition – it matters not the least to them.

How else can we explain how far we have been left behind? We cannot provide clean water to our citizens. We cannot provide decent education. We cannot provide good health. We cannot provide adequately paying jobs. We cannot provide livable housing. We cannot provide public transport. We cannot provide reliable electricity. We cannot provide honest public services. We cannot even provide hope of a better future. All that is on offer is mindless rhetoric regurgitated by highly compensated sinecures, rhetoric that can be swallowed much like the highly lethal particulate matter circulating in the air.

How can we restore the sunshine in our political lives? It seems impossible given the entrenched army of parasites that clings to and stifles every putative saviour and bends him or her to their self-serving ends. Perhaps these parasites feel they have the wherewithal to fly away on helicopters for good when the day of doom finally arrives. Till then they can plunder and extract the nation’s resources at will, siphoning them to safe havens while taking turns at the helm. There is no sunshine and, in this case, not even the faintest of lights at the end of the tunnel.

Is it possible to think, in our fevered states, that this political malady might also have a cause much like the stubble whose burning is causing the smog in our cities? Is there something that is generating and nurturing and perpetuating the political pollution and keeping it in play? In our lucid moments, the moments we can spare from the travails of surviving in the deathly air, we can almost point in the right direction. Perhaps, when enough fingers are pointing in the same direction, the sun shall burst forth and there will be light.

The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.