There are times when positive traits like ‘consistency’ are a curse for a country. Lahore’s consistency in being one of the world’s worst polluted cities is one such example. And the government’s inefficiency in tackling this issue that crops up every year is even more alarming. The arrival of winter in Lahore is marked by the entry of thick blankets of smog – an environmental danger that leads to fatal accidents on highways as well as life-threatening respiratory diseases in both children and adults. This time too, the situation has gotten out of control to the extent that almost a week back, the caretaker Punjab government was considering imposing coronavirus-like restrictions in Lahore to control smog and save people from its lethal impacts. Shutting down an entire city for a short period a day a week may have serious economic implications – something that Pakistan cannot afford at this time. But what is the right answer when the choice is between people’s health and the economy? Every year, Lahore goes through this torture in the winter. And every year, the winter passes by with people grappling with ENT issues that only seem to get worse. all is forgotten till October when the smog returns — with a vengeance.
Sunday saw AQI levels back at above 300. These are life-threatening levels. These are levels that are a crime against any city inhabitants. Which brings us to an important question: why have we not taken any steps to reduce the impact of smog? Why are there no sustainability projects in the country that can help reduce pollution? Countless analysts and observers have tried to shift the government’s focus on the major reasons behind this problem that keeps returning annually: the near-absence of a reliable public transportation system, an increasingly non-walkable city, and no checks on factories responsible for releasing poisonous toxins in the air. For years, policymakers in Pakistan have blamed India for smog in Lahore, explaining that India’s burning of straw stubble leads to smog in Pakistan. But the problem is not as simple as that. Our practices that are glaringly not environmentally-friendly are also a major cause — some would argue the main cause — for the annual smog problem.
Around the world, countries have made a remarkable shift towards sustainable living. The use of tech in agricultural practices and industries has allowed governments to save the environment from harmful pollutants. Countries are shifting to e-vehicles (EVs) to reduce pollution. In Pakistan, the entry of technological advancements is too little, too late. While there are individuals who have made conscious choices and moved to environmentally-friendly products, this is not happening at a mass scale. And how can they at a time of such inflation that anything environmentally friendly is also economically unfriendly? So far, we have not seen much in terms of sustained efforts to combat smog. Environment experts and other urban planners are rarely engaged, and businesses with focus on profits are preferred during urban planning. This has been going on forever, and it may continue like this. But a look at Lahore’s current environmental condition suggests that the government’s negligence and inaction is a signal for a lethal climate crisis that will wreak havoc across cities. The time to act is now.