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Editorial | Official Narrative On Air Pollution Is Part Of Problem

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There are two narratives on the smog problem that engulfs the country’s second-largest city and provincial capital of Punjab.

One comes from ordinary citizens, journalists and environmentalists and it says that the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Lahore hovers at highly toxic levels above 300 – in fact, 335 today to be precise, and as high as 763 in some of the most polluted parts of the city. This is roughly the same level of smoke intake as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

The other narrative comes from Pakistani officialdom. The authorities appear to be claiming that the problem is being exaggerated because it is based on an internationally accepted system devised in the United States. We are called upon to abandon this international system for measuring air quality, as well as the suffering of Lahore’s millions. Instead, we are expected to use an alternative scale.

The modified scale used by the Punjab Environment Protection Council claims that PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, i.e. very fine particles) at a rating of 60 is “satisfactory”. The index used by the rest of the world considers this to be an unhealthy level, but that appears to be of little consequence in the corridors of power here.

The tactic is typical of Pakistani officialdom, in all its hideous predictability. If pollution is shortening lives, the problem is not a failure to curb it. The problem is in our perception. It can be literally wished away by simply changing the scale used to measure the pollution.

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Our current Minister of State for Climate Change, Zartaj Gul Wazir, is better known for extremely partisan, unpleasant and vitriolic attacks on the country’s beleaguered opposition – rather than any work on climate change. Some of her bizarre statements on climate have been the occasion for much amusement on social media, such as her medieval-sounding belief that heavy snowfall and favourable rains are brought about by virtuous rulers, etc.

Meanwhile, being subjected to fumes that are the equivalent of 40 cigarettes a day, Lahore’s citizens – particularly children and the elderly – are forced to restrict outdoor activities. Aside from the horrific short-term effects of such levels of air pollution, we have not even begun to discuss the medium- to long-term consequences of breathing in so much poison on a daily basis, year after year.

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