A new front in the decades-long rivalry between India and Pakistan has emerged: which country is more responsible for the choking air pollution that straddles their shared, hostile border.
As residents of Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, complained of shortness of breath, stinging eyes and nausea from thick, acrid smog that they compare to living in the smoke of a camp fire, the country’s minister of state for climate change smelled a conspiracy.
“Misinformation is being spread about Lahore air quality,” the minister, Zartaj Gul Wazir wrote on Twitter, before going on to blame India for the majority of the air pollution afflicting Pakistan. “It is nowhere as bad as being asserted by vested elements.”
The term “vested elements” is code for Pakistan’s enemies, India chief among them.
On many winter days, Lahore competes with India’s capital, Delhi, for the unflattering distinction of the world’s most polluted city. But while Delhi has slowly woken up to the danger of its hazardous air quality and put in place some — although not enough — government action to tackle it, Lahore has been much slower to respond, let alone recognize 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 rebuked the Pakistani government for denying Lahore’s 11 million residents the ability to live in a healthy environment.
“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.”
The Pakistani government must “stop downplaying the crisis and take urgent action to protect people’s health and lives,” the statement said.
The Pakistani government does not publish hourly updates on air pollution levels, and it has lowered its standards for what constitutes dangerous levels of air pollution, often citing as healthy levels that are considered dangerous internationally. On Friday morning, Lahore’s air quality index level peaked at 385; any reading above 50 is considered to be unhealthy.
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 suspicion and anger only deepened.
“The environment minister’s statements are immature 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 emit dirty fumes while vehicular diesel fuel sends air pollution levels skyrocketing like clockwork 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 is when Lahore’s dreaded “fifth season” kicks in.
The World Health Organization has said Pakistan’s air pollution likely causes 22,000 premature adult deaths every year.
Lahore’s residents say that in the absence of government action, the air pollution is getting worse.
This year, for the first time, the government shut schools in Pakistan’s Punjab Province because of the thick smog encircling 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 perennial headaches and nausea. The government needs to take responsibility.”
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