We have entered the second winter of our discontent. Lahore hasn’t seen a blue sky for weeks, and what used to be the most glorious time of the year for the city has become a dreadful quasi-season of its own: smog. And not just any old bit-of-bad-air, but hazardous levels of toxic pollutants that are choking residents slowly. As usual, the government has deployed its special modus operandi whilst dealing with anything that really matters: complete obtuseness. The minister for the environment had blithely told a public meeting of citizens that the smog has been taken care of, and that there is nothing to worry about. Air monitors installed by concerned citizens tell an entirely different story. The government is putting up cute little posters advising us to not be afraid of the smog, but to take precautions. The trouble is, we need to be very afraid—and lying to Lahore is not going to help anyone.
Last year we were able to ostrich ourselves from the smog by employing our favourite technique—shifting the blame, particularly to India. It’s Diwali, we coughed, so many firecrackers, unprecedented in the history of the Subcontinent, goodness! Maybe a bit of crop burning, coal burning, but mostly Not Us. Political narrative likes to gloss over what are its own faults, and the fact that building the Orange Train has entailed massive tree-cutting and digging in Lahore was conveniently overlooked. The Orange Train is still under construction, underpasses are being built mercilessly and the trees that are cut down—native ones like amaltas and sumbal—have been replaced by fledgling ficus and monstrous, useless palm trees that do precious little to help clean the air. It is not a coincidence that the onset of smog in Lahore has corresponded with the “development” of the city.
Crop burning is a practice that farmers have employed for decades as a way to get rid of stubble. It’s not the most environmentally friendly, but it’s the cheapest, and small-holding farmers don’t have incentives to stop—especially when bigger farmers don’t. Coal-burning factories have not been controlled, neither have brick kilns. The number of vehicles on our roads also increases every year, and all the asphalt being laid down to accommodate them (and make the government look good) is only contributing to rising temperatures. What’s the point of all this investment in public transport if everyone is still buying more motorcycles and cars?
Our problem is ours. It doesn’t matter what India is doing, or whether Delhi has shut schools and offices down. What matters is Lahore, and how we address the problem we have. Passing the buck is immature and pointless. We need to knuckle down and take serious action if we want to pull our city back from the brink of environmental disaster. London and New York battled horrible smog and fog more than a century before Lahore did; a policy overhaul put systems in place that brought it under control. Anyone who has been to these cities now can attest to their urban development—the traffic in New York is as terrible as in any big city, London as crowded and yet their air is cleaner and their public transport systems both extensive and effective. Here we can’t even plan one train right, because nothing is ever done to sustain long-term change that actually helps citizens, only stop-gap measures meant to win the next election.
The environment is something that affects us all, and we need to get over our class privilege and political squabbles and buckle down to business. The most important thing we can do is start a massive public awareness campaign so people realize this is not tree-hugging handwringing, but really a matter of life and basic health. Respiratory disease rates have skyrocketed in the past two years, and infants and old people are the hardest hit. Smog won’t magically dissipate with the rain, or time. We have to mobilize: university departments of botany can easily provide lists of trees and plants that oxygenate and purify the air; nurseries can be galvanized to supply them for mass planting. Generators need to be replaced with solar units and existing ones used sparingly. Cars need to be kept tuned and in shape to reduce emissions; filtration masks should be available at every pharmacy and subsidized in poorer parts of town too. Agricultural practices in Punjab need to be amended and alternative methods to crop burning incentivized. And the construction needs to stop—the clouds of dirt, the machines belching smoke, the tar fumes, the idea that progress is only measurable in steel and concrete. We can fight the smog, but it will take time and commitment that we need to cultivate in more than just a handful of citizens. What is done is done, but what matters now is how we solve the problem at hand. Although the provincial government has failed us again, there are solutions we can employ as citizens—but they will only work when we all rally behind them.