Another front in the decades-long rivalry between India and Pakistan has appeared: which country (India or Pakistan) is more responsible for the choking air pollution that bestraddles their common, dangerous border.
As residents of Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, complained of shortness of breath, prickling eyes and nausea from thick, acrid smog that they compare to living in the smoke of a campfire, the country’s minister of state for climate change detected a conspiracy.
“Misinformation is being spread about Lahore air quality,” the minister, Zartaj Gul Wazir wrote on Twitter, before going on to accuse India for the majority of the air pollution afflicting Pakistan. “It is nowhere as bad as being asserted by vested elements.” The phrase “vested elements” is code for Pakistan’s enemies, India chief among them.
Lahore battles India’s capital, New Delhi, for the unflattering distinction of the world’s most polluted city. But while Delhi has slowly woken up to the threat of its precarious air quality, Lahore has been much slower to react, let alone acknowledge the problem.
On Friday, Amnesty International issued an “urgent action” for Lahore, its first-ever appeal for the population of an entire city. The rights group reprimanded Islamabad for denying Lahore’s 11 million residents the ability to live in a healthy atmosphere.
“The government’s inadequate response to the smog in Lahore raises significant human rights concerns,” said Rimmel Mohydin, a South Asia analyst at Amnesty International, in a statement. “The hazardous air is putting everyone’s right to health at risk.”
Islamabad must “stop downplaying the crisis and take urgent action to protect people’s health and lives,” the statement said.
The Imran Khan Government does not publish hourly updates on air pollution levels, and it has decreased its standards for what constitutes dangerous levels of air pollution, often citing as healthy levels that are considered hazardous globally. On Friday morning, Lahore’s air quality index level sky-rocketed at 385; any reading above 50 is considered to be harmful.
In her Twitter messages late last month, Ms. Wazir, the country’s minister of state for climate change, appealed to Pakistanis to “only use our data for information.” She added, “Lahore is not at all ranked the most polluted city in the world.”
But many of Lahore’s residents have little faith in the government’s numbers. And when Ms. Wazir in the same breath downplayed Pakistan’s air pollution and then blamed it on India, their mistrust and resentment only intensified.
“The environment minister’s statements are naive and defensive,” said Sarah N. Ahmad, a Lahore-based urban policy consultant. “Smog is not a political issue. It is a climate and policy issue. To politicize people’s health and well-being is very immature.”
Like many in Pakistan’s government, Ms. Wazir has blamed crop burning by north Indian farmers for sending toxic smog rolling across the border into Pakistan. But Pakistani farmers also burn their crops, and Lahore is dotted with factories that release polluted fumes while vehicular diesel fuel sends air pollution levels cresting every autumn and winter.
Every year, as the weather cools, dangerous air particles known as PM 2.5 that are absorbed in the bloodstream and lung tissue sit thick in the atmosphere, the cold weighing them down to trap them above cities like Lahore.
This year, for the first time, the government shut schools in Pakistan’s Punjab Province because of the thick smog encompassing many of the province’s cities, including Lahore. So far this month, the government has closed schools three times.
Three teenage students were so incensed by the lack of action, they filed a lawsuit against the government this month, accusing officials of “underreporting the severity of the situation.”
“I feel this is the worst year — so far,” said Aatekah Mir-Khan, a resident of Lahore, adding that she no longer allows her son to play outdoors. “The next year might even be worse, and that’s the more disturbing thought.”
She added: “At the end of the day when you take your clothes off, they smell of soot and smoke. Your eyes and the inside of your throat burn. You have sustained headaches and nausea. The government needs to take responsibility.”
Edited By The EurAsian Times. Originally Published By The NYT