The air we breathe — in Lahore

December 10, 2023

Lahore’s livability is at stake; it demands a comprehensive strategy not only to combat smog but also to protect the city’s environmental equilibrium. A comment

A seasonal woe. — Photo by Rahat Dar
A seasonal woe. — Photo by Rahat Dar


he Lahore Fort stands mighty, The Mall exudes a charm entirely its own, and the famous Canal whispers tales from history. Lahore can be utterly mesmerising. But these days, life in the metro has become quite hard, as you yearn for a breath — of fresh air. That’s what smog has brought us Lahoris to.

As a temporary(?) measure to address the deteriorating air quality, the caretaker government of the Punjab recently mandated all educational institutes and public offices in Lahore and some other districts to close on Saturdays. Commercial activities could resume post-3pm only. These enforced breaks are meant to restrict traffic flow, lowering carbon emissions, and thus reduce the citizens’ exposure to the polluted air. Has the idea worked? No.

Air pollution is not a seasonal woe for Lahore. In winters, the inversion of temperature leads to the pollutants rising and accumulating, enveloping the city to create smog. However, the question arises: what’s the solution to this persistent dilemma?

With thousands of patients of throat and lung infections, adding strain to an already overburdened healthcare system, policymakers urgently need to brainstorm ideas and implement measures aimed at preventing Lahore from becoming one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Ironically, Lahore, the fabled City of Gardens, now lacks green spaces. Besides, it struggles with overwhelming volumes of traffic on its roads, significantly contributing to the pervasive air pollution. In any metropolitan city, traffic congestion becomes a problem when the public/ mass transport system is inadequate. The problem is compounded by zones designed for an ever increasing vehicular presence, and rapid urbanisation. As a result, we see a surge in motor vehicles in the streets and on the roads.

Though, the city now has efficient metro train and metro bus systems, it requires more projects to ensure comprehensive accessibility for its growing populace. It is common belief that when quality public transport options are available, individuals often prefer those over private cars. In order to address the influx of vehicular traffic in Lahore, the authorities should explore the possibility of a ‘congestion charge’ for vehicles entering the city limits. This approach could potentially alleviate traffic congestion and mitigate its environmental impact.

Increased vehicular presence not only means extended travel time and heightened petrol consumption, it also significantly contributes to environmental degradation through excessive fossil fuel consumption. The proposed tax could target older vehicles or those emitting higher levels of pollutants, mirroring successful models observed in cities like London where such measures have had positive outcomes, and curbed traffic congestion and pollution by incentivising the replacement of low-quality vehicles.

Furthermore, drawing inspiration from other cities of the world, Lahore could do well to adopt the smart city model, leveraging data-driven approaches to combat traffic congestion.

In 2019, the World Economic Forum declared Bogota, the capital of Colombia, the city with most traffic congestion. Bogota initially experimented with an alternate-day driving scheme, allocating specific days for vehicles based on odd- or even-numbered licence plates. However, this policy restricted individuals’ commuting rights and proved ineffective in alleviating traffic congestion, highlighting that an outright ban wasn’t a viable solution.

Bogota then shifted its focus towards technology-driven solutions. Embracing the concept of smart cities, they developed a mobility management solution centred on gathering data from various sources such as traffic lights, cameras and bus stops. This data became instrumental in devising targeted measures to address urban mobility challenges, leading to substantial reductions in congestion by directing the flow of traffic according to expected loads.

Speaking of Bogota without acknowledging its distinction as the cycling capital of Latin America would be remiss. Faced with significant traffic congestion, citizens in Bogota organised into cycling groups, embracing cycling as a primary mode of transportation. Their proactive initiatives inspired a cultural shift, normalising cycling on the city’s roads. Slowly, yet surely, cycling became a popular thing, with the need for infrastructure to facilitate cyclists. The government supported this movement by establishing dedicated cycling lanes and tracks. This has proved a sustainable solution for the congested city.

The many benefits of cycling notwithstanding, the current state of air quality in Lahore presents a major obstacle. The compromised air quality poses health risks to cyclists navigating the hazardous roads of Lahore, making cycling impractical and potentially harmful.


hen confronted with Lahore’s air pollution, some politicians have resorted to pointing fingers at India. While India may be contributing to the pollution, internal factors and a lack of accountability are the primary factors in suffocating our City of Gardens. From the burning of stubble to polluting brick-kilns and coal-powered power stations, there is ample room for reform and action to curb the emissions.

Burning of stubble has been prohibited but remains commonplace. Burning of waste, which has a more severe environmental impact, is still practiced in urban slums. For Lahore in particular and the Punjab in general, to secure a sustainable future, the focus must shift towards implementing policy recommendations effectively and ensuring tangible impact.

The rapid pace of urbanisation and industrialisation has significantly contributed to a substantial rise in air pollution. In South Asia, recent industrialisation and urban growth echo the trajectories of many currently developed nations that once faced similar challenges.

With industrialisation comes increased wealth for individuals, which leads to the transformation of the urban landscapes, clearing land for new roads and structures. The pursuit of economic development often blinds people to the environmental consequences of rapid urban sprawl, contributing significantly to air pollution. For Pakistan, striking a balance between development and environmental preservation is an important concern. While the nation aspires for economic advancement, it must not come at the cost of millions of citizens waking up every day with respiratory issues.

Are the authorities content with directing the majority of resources solely towards enhancing the ‘visible infrastructure,’ while disregarding reforms crucial to easing traffic congestion and reducing air pollution? For how long will we continue to turn a blind eye to the environmental toll of our actions, from accelerating deforestation to extensive land clearance? The persistent smog poses a grave health risk, emphasising the urgency to tackle the escalating carbon emissions stemming from vehicles and various other sources. Lahore’s livability is at stake. It demands a comprehensive strategy not only to combat smog but also to protect the city’s environmental equilibrium.

The writer is an aspiring urban economist. He recently completed a master’s degree in urban economic development from University College, London. He is also the cofounder of HamSukhan, a community-based learning platform

The air we breathe — in Lahore