South and Central Asia Desk
Written by: Minahil Nawaz, Timothy Dwight College
At 10 AM on 30th October 2019, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Lahore, Pakistan reached 484. According to Amnesty International, the threshold that determines “hazardous” levels of air quality is 300, when people are asked to “avoid all physical activity outdoors.” Despite this warning, business continued as usual in the city of 11 million people.
On 7th November 2019 though, when the Air Quality Index increased to 551, the provincial government was forced to announce the closure of all schools in Lahore. A thick blag smog engulfed the region as driving any kind of vehicle became impossible and the city became virtually unbreathable. The situation had escalated to a severe public health crisis.
For most of the year, levels of air quality in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab were rated “near unhealthy” and “very unhealthy,” according to reports by US Consulate air quality monitors and crowdsourced data from the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI). But from October onwards, the city of Lahore has been experiencing “smog season”: air quality has reached hazardous levels and has been worsened by poor fuel quality, uncontrolled emissions and agricultural stubble burning as farmers clear their fields. Furthermore, with the results of climate change, warmer temperatures have caused the resulting smog to hover over the region for months.
In particular, low-income workers such as laborers, construction workers, and marginalized groups are most vulnerable to the health-related impact of air pollution, as the nature of their work leads them to be exposed to unhealthy air quality throughout the day. These are also the Lahoris with little access to appropriate health care, or the ability to afford such health care. 135,000 deaths are attributed to air pollution each year, making it the leading cause of sickness in Pakistan and reducing life expectancy by 60 months.
In the realm of politics, blame for this air quality continues to be shifted to India. Most recently, according to a tweet by Pakistan’s Minister of State for Climate Change, Zartaj Gul Wazir, crop burning in India was the main source of smog in Lahore. Meanwhile, a BJP politician in India, Vineet Agarwal Sharda, appeared to blame both Pakistan and China for air pollution in India: “There’s a possibility that poisonous air could have been released by a neighboring country.”
As pointed out by Rimmel Mohydin, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International, though: “There is something very wrong when the air becomes so toxic that you cannot breathe without hurting yourself. The government can no longer afford to waste time while people are choking to death.”