The South Asian health disaster that’s worse than covid

People commute amid smoggy conditions in Lahore, Pakistan, on Dec. 1. (Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images)
People commute amid smoggy conditions in Lahore, Pakistan, on Dec. 1. (Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images)

If you don’t smoke to protect your health, you are very wise. But if you don’t smoke and you live in Lahore or Delhi, you might inhale smoke equal to 10 to 15 cigarettes daily. In that case, you’re wise but unlucky. Simply breathing in these cities poses serious health effects, from lung cancer to heart disease.

Citizens of many big South Asian cities have long been under attack from this enemy, more dangerous than the coronavirus. (It’s estimated that 54,000 people died prematurely in New Delhi last year due to polluted air, a higher toll than in any other big metropolis in the world.)

I recently confronted this enemy in the Pakistani city of Lahore. This city, known as the cultural capital and heart of Pakistan, is struggling to breathe these days. In the past few weeks, Lahore beat out New Delhi for the title of the world’s most polluted city.

I went to Lahore last week to join a wedding party. Every second person in the party was coughing. A journalist friend advised me to leave what he called “this gas chamber” as soon as possible to avoid getting sick. He pointed toward the sky and said, “You can’t see stars in the night and you won’t see sparrows during the day, but you can see black smog everywhere killing us day and night”. I thought comparing Lahore to a “gas chamber” was an exaggeration. (After all, 9 out of 10 people breathe unhealthy air worldwide.) I ignored his advice. But within hours, it became difficult for me to breathe. I started coughing. I never managed to fall asleep. The next morning, I ran away from the city where I was born and raised.

I was forced to leave this city many years ago due to my journalism. But this time I fled from Lahore because of the smog. I noticed the absence of sparrows and other small birds in Lahore. This city has already lost more than half of its bird species. Doctors advise many patients to leave the city to avoid respiratory infections, but not everyone cannot afford that.

Some educational institutions in Lahore have started awareness campaigns to fight smog. They claim on their websites that the main reason for the smog is crop burning by Indian farmers. But this is not the whole truth. Lahore is the provincial capital of Punjab, and many cities of the province are facing the same problem. Lahore has been losing its tree cover for the past two decades. New housing developments have replaced hundreds of orchards and thousands of acres of agricultural land around Lahore. Industrial pollution, vehicular emissions and fossil-fuel-fired power plants are contributing to the increase in smog. The Lahore High Court recently hinted that it might order a weeklong lockdown in the city due to poor air quality. Last month, India’s Supreme Court ordered authorities to shut down offices in New Delhi and mandate work from home. This is not the first time the court has tried to save this city from death.

Two years ago, an Indian judge declared that air pollution had made Delhi “worse than hell”. It is not, however, the responsibility of judges to fight air pollution — that is the responsibility of administrators at the city, provincial and national levels. The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution claimed in 2019 that China, India and Pakistan were at the top of annual premature air-pollution-related deaths. China has actually made some improvements in its war against air pollution. But India and Pakistan are still failing.

Scientists estimate that pollution might cut the life expectancy of Indians by nine years and Pakistanis by four to seven. Rulers of these countries are only doing lip service on issues such as pollution and climate change. This year, Indian authorities arrested a young climate-change activist on sedition charges just for supporting Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. The Pakistani government is not different. It has filed charges against Lahore farmers who refused to surrender their land to a gigantic real estate development. The farmers are accusing the government of a land grab — even though the project was ostensibly launched in the name of environmental protection.

Imran Khan and Narendra Modi must take this issue more seriously. Air pollution is a major preexisting health condition contributing to deaths from covid. It is linked with global warming. Sixty-nine years ago, London experienced its own Great Smog, not so different from what Lahore and Delhi are going through now. The British government defeated this silent killer through regulation. India and Pakistan must draw lessons from Britain’s experience.

Ban housing developments on farmland. Preserve forests. Don’t allow polluting industries inside cities. Convert public transport to electric vehicles. Start a coordinated war against air pollution. If London managed to survive its smog, Lahore and Delhi can do the same. They just have to show that they have the will.

Hamid Mir is a contributing columnist for the Global Opinions section focused on Pakistani politics and geopolitical issues in the region.

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