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Under the Shadow of Smog

After schools and offices, LHC sets sights on reduced timings for markets and restaurants in bid to curb hazardous air pollution

by Sumeera Riaz

File photo. Arif Ali—AFP

Since the onset of winter, Punjab capital Lahore has once again been shrouded under a blanket of smog, with residents increasingly complaining of the ill-effects of the hazardous air, especially among the very young, elderly and infirm. Taking notice of the surge in health concerns, the Lahore High Court (LHC) on Wednesday directed authorities to implement the closure of all markets and restaurants at 10 p.m. in a bid to curb the air pollution.

Last week, the LHC had directed authorities to ensure educational institutions and private offices only remained open 4 days a week—Monday through Thursday—while imposing “off days” from Friday through Sunday. Subsequently, the government issued a notification through the Punjab Education Department, requiring all public and private schools to remain shuttered three days a week “until further orders.” The Punjab Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), meanwhile, issued a notification citing Section 4(3)(h) of the Punjab National Calamities Act, 1958, directing all private offices to similarly restrict the work-week to four days a week until Jan. 15.

In its first week of implementation, the orders were only partially successful, with several schools remaining open on Friday in violation of court orders. In today’s hearing, Justice Shahid Karim ordered the district administration to seal all institutions that had violated court orders. Informing the court of the implementation of its directives, Lahore Deputy Commissioner (DC) Muhammad Ali said he had met with traders and they had agreed to early closures of their facilities to reduce emissions and curb smog.

According to Mian Waqar, a member of the Lahore Traders Association who attended the meeting with the DC, wholesale traders had willingly agreed to the restrictions, as most of them wrap up their business by 7 p.m. Retailers, he said, had expressed some hesitation but had also agreed to close all markets at 10 p.m. However, the DC did not meet with any representatives of the Lahore Restaurants Association, which has outright refused to comply with today’s orders.

While the courts have allowed restaurants to remain open till 11 p.m. on the “off-days,” restaurateurs say any restriction would heavily impact their business and they cannot comply with orders that did not seek their input. “We are the biggest stakeholders, we are generating millions of rupees revenue on a daily basis and millions of people are associated with the industry as part time jobs,” Ahmed Shaffique, a member of the Lahore Restaurants Association, told the Standard. “Since we were not contacted by the district administration and no coordination was made with restaurant owners in this regard, therefore, we do not feel bound to comply with the court orders,” he added.

Explaining the impact of the restrictions on their business, Shaffique said “culturally, shutting down food outlets in Lahore at 10 p.m. would reduce recreation for people and it would hurt the industry very much as many eateries remain open in the city round-the-clock.”

Worsening air quality

The LHC’s directives followed nearly a month of hearings into various petitions seeking curbs on smog and other environmental concerns. Drawing the attention of the Punjab Government to the worsening air quality—with Lahore often found to be among the 10 worst in the world—it ordered authorities to declare an “environment emergency” in the provincial capital and take steps to improve it. Justice Karim also reprimanded the provincial government for its “non-seriousness” about the alarming situation. Punjab Chief Minister Parvez Elahi, subsequently, imposed a “climate emergency” and directed authorities to come up with a strategy to battle the deteriorating situation.

IQAir, an independent organization that monitors air quality globally, has shown persistent deterioration in the Air Quality Index of Lahore, ranging from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “hazardous.” According to health experts, the smog can cause breathing discomfort, respiratory tract diseases and heart diseases amongst people of all age brackets.

Despite this, Punjab Environment Director Naseemur Rehman believes there is no “emergency” and Lahore is doing fine. Maintaining no cases of eye infection, allergies or burning sensation have been reported from Lahore so far, he claimed Lahore was currently engulfed by fog rather than smog.

“Lahore has 148 AQI while Indian capital New Delhi and China’s capital Beijing hit 354 to 500,” he told the Standard, adding the provincial government had been taking preemptive measures since May. This is cherry-picking of available data, as Lahore’s recorded AQI drops below 150 for only an hour or two daily, usually ranging from 150-200, if not higher. On Dec. 8, prior to the implementation of the “off-days” ordered by the LHC, it was recorded at 303.

“The smog season begins from Oct. 15 and lasts till Nov. 10,” Rehman continued though data of recent years shows hazardous air quality persisting in Lahore through December and even into January. “Anti-smog squads were already operational in various districts to curb smoke emissions from heavy industrial areas, stubble burning and vehicles,” he said, adding weekly meetings on curbing it had been chaired by the chief minister and the environment secretary.

The government allocated Rs. 2 billion for initiatives aimed at reducing smog, he said, and was providing financial and technical support to farmers for modern harvesting to discourage stubble burning. It has also converted 60-70 percent of brick kilns to the environmentally-friendly zigzag technology, he added.

Rehman’s claims don’t hold much water for environmentalists, however, who maintain that Lahore’s air quality risks reducing each resident’s lifespan by 5 years due to the ill-effects of breathing in pollution. This year could be especially bad, they have warned, as regions that remain inundated because of floods would likely witness greater levels of smog because fog from evaporation would trap pollution, leaving people exposed to hazardous breathing conditions.

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