Dense smog persists in Punjab. The situation calls for evidence-based policy rather than mere speculations
Several cities lying in the plains of Punjab, especially Lahore, are engulfed in a thick cloud of polluted air since the end of October.
The smog is said to have led to an increase in the instance of respiratory diseases, nausea, headaches, throat problems and so on. People are also blaming the smog for soreness in eyes and discomfort in breathing.
This is the second year in a row that this region is facing such dire environmental conditions at the start of the winter season. In The Third Pole, environmentalist and lawyer Ahmed Rafay Alam explains the connection between smog and advent of winter. He says, "the slight drop in temperatures always raise pollution levels because cooler air compresses the air molecules together, as well the PM2.5 and other pollutants."
Routine life is disrupted as people are avoiding road travel due to high risk of accidents; flights and trains have also been delayed or cancelled. School-going children are among the most vulnerable. So a change in timings has been announced by the Punjab School Education Department, while some schools have even cancelled classes.
The only hope for relief is pinned on a heavy downpour, which is nowhere to be seen in weather forecasts.
Smog has become a common word, given our heavy exposure to it. The basic understanding is that smog develops during a process in which the particulate matter present in the air settles on the moisture formed due to cooling and condensation. One can call it a combination of smoke and fog, because it comprises smoke, dust particles and harmful gases such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide. Many of these unwelcome components of our air are emitted by vehicular traffic and industry.
We may well know what smog is, but the causes of its formation in different parts of Punjab on the Pakistani side of the border are still a mystery.
There are numerous claims, with varying degrees of believability, but none backed with evidence. According to one claim, the burning of millions of tonnes of stubble in India’s northern states of Punjab and Haryana, and Rajasthan coal plants are forcing smog into Pakistani territory.
Another recent claim, made by the former Director General Environment Protection Agency, Asif Shuja, is that dust storms from Iran and other middle eastern countries have been pushed here by strong winds and are filling the atmosphere with suspended dust particles.
Further explanations include local pollutants such as the smoke rising from factories, the use of unclean fuels and cutting of trees, but there is hardly any scientific evidence or data available to back this up.
Environmentalist Rafay Alam urges experts to be careful while identifying causes and base their claims on evidence. Otherwise, "those responsible for the environmental mess will continue getting away with it and the problem will remain unsolved," he says.
"Crop burning in India might have had an effect on Lahore’s atmosphere but this might not be the only reason. The smoke from India could have added to the already polluted air in Pakistan and together they worked out to be the perfect recipe for this [environmental] disaster," says Alam.
A common observation by experts is that big inland cities that aim to obtain and retain high economic growth rates without caring about environmental costs are major victims of smog. Coastal cities, regardless of their pollution level, are able to disperse pollutants because of the strong sea breeze they enjoy. An example is of the industrial city of Ahwaz in Iran that ranks first on the World Health Organisation’s list of cities most affected by smog. Beijing, New Delhi and Lahore are also in the top-10 list.
The situation in Delhi is far worse than Lahore. The government there has imposed a medical emergency, halted certain construction projects to reduce airborne dust, banned polluting vehicles, shut down many industries and coal powered plants, and temporarily shut down schools. The level of PM2.5, a tiny but deadly particulate matter that can enter the lungs and bloodstream, is found to be around 703 microgrammes per cubic metre in the air of New Delhi. This is more than 10 times the "satisfactory level" of 70 microgrammes per cubic metre.
Naseemur Rehman, Director Environment Protection Department (EPD) Punjab, agrees there is a lack of scientific evidence, but "the government will now go ahead with a comprehensive strategy to root out all likely causes of smog and air pollution". He shares that a policy titled "Policy and Action Plan for Control, Mitigation, Advisory, and Protective Measures in Extreme Weather Conditions of Dense Smog in the Punjab" has been notified by the Punjab government and this development has been brought to the knowledge of the Lahore High Court.
Earlier, it was the court that had issued instructions in this regard.
The new policy maintains that there shall be regular monitoring and reporting of air pollution levels, a total ban on the use of waste fuels such as old tyres, paper, and textile waste in industries like brick kilns and steel re-rolling mills. It calls for monitoring of rice stubble burning activities in Punjab using satellite data, introduction of Euro II standard environment-friendly fuel and a regular analysis of the scientific data obtained through the recently acquired air quality monitoring equipment. "Such data helps in identifying the real cause of the problem and is crucial for informed decision making," the policy states.
Other proposed steps include lowering the sulphur content in fuels, creating woodlands in and around major cities, and taking up transboundary issues by the federal government between India and Pakistan.
It must be noted that the smog intensified in 2016, but the issue was ignored at the government level until early October of this year when the LHC Chief Justice (CJ) Syed Mansoor Ali Shah instructed the Punjab government to come up with a policy in two days.
Dr Farrukh Chishtie, former head of the Department of Space Science at the Institute of Space Technology (IST), terms the absence of data regarding air pollution as a major cause for the level of air pollution. "The EPD Punjab has never had the capability to measure air impurities," believes Dr Chishtie. "The air quality equipment provided by the Japanese government remained unused. Now they have obtained six new stations but still there are no results. How can a prescription be written without doing a proper diagnosis?"
EPD Director Rehman denies Chishtie’s charges about not using the air quality monitoring stations. Rehman says the stations and their equipment are very much in use. "Five stations have been installed at different locations in Lahore and one is mobile. We have measured the PM2.5 level of Lahore which is between 225 to 250 at different locations."
Though he does not share exact figures, Rehman says, "We have observed that the levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide suddenly rise when there is a traffic jam or when cars are parked at a signal, and the level falls when traffic begins moving again. The levels at locations that have less traffic such as Lahore Ring Road and the Defence Housing Authority are closer to desired levels than areas which experience heavier traffic."
Ahmed Rafay Alam thinks six monitoring stations are far less than the needs of the province, which has 36 districts. He explains that the cost of such equipment has come down. "I have purchased an air pollution measuring device for USD300 whose margin of error is extremely low. The readings I have measured are in the range of 500 to 600 for PM2.5 - this is more than double than those shared by the EPD."
In defence of the EPD, Rehman maintains that there has been an improvement over the year, while admitting that "a lot more needs to be done. The round-the-year-crackdown against the use of hazardous fuel like old tyres, and factories emitting untreated waste has brought around results. This time the situation is not like it was on November 2, 2016 when people had severe pain and itching in eyes and bad taste in mouth."
Another article of the new policy to curb the smog situation relates to banning the burning of crop residue under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. EPD’s Rehman hopes this will yield fast results.
But will it be so simple to stop farmers from burning crop residue when it is not possible for them to remove the crop residue manually, and they are in a hurry to sow cotton crop? Harvesters cut the standing crops but the stubble stays rooted, which is difficult to remove. The Punjab Minister for Environment Zakia Shahnawaz tells TNS "the government will provide these farmers assistance and machinery to plough their fields".
This, she says, will cost the government but its benefits will override the expenses.
There is no doubt the smog control policy is quite impressive but there are concerns in some quarters about how seriously will the government implement it.
Asif Ali Sial, the head of LHC’s Access to Climate Justice Committee wonders how the Punjab government will react if emissions from coal powered plants and the suspended dust caused by Lahore’s never-ending construction are found to be the major culprits. "Will it be ready to revise its priorities and choices?"
Citing history, he fears, the true data will not be shared. If the government had set a precedent of sharing this data previously, it would be less challenging to develop corrective measures in a timely manner. "Today air pollution has become a menace and needs a corrective action on a very large scale," says Sial.
He also points out that there has been a history of revising deadlines that have to do with environment. "In 2008 there was a proposed deadline to bring down the allowable content of sulphur for fuels used in the country by 20 times. But despite multiple revisions of deadline, this objective has not been achieved."
Sial pins his confidence on the court, hoping it will ensure compliance with the policy.