The mechanical splutter as a rickshaw whirs to life. An angry cacophony of car horns that feels like it’s reverberating inside your head. Black smoke from the exhaust penetrating your nose and blackening your lungs. The eyesore that is the hundreds of plastic shopper bags littering an empty plot — pink, blue and green, like an ugly rainbow. A fire that greets from the side of the road like a surprise guest, more plumes of smoke billowing up from it that mimic the petals of a flower opening up in bloom. With every hour that passes, a new colorful crowd of cars, motorcycles, vans and rickshaws becomes jam-packed in the grey haze, offering their passengers no choice but to be late to their destinations.
These sights, sounds, and smells are nothing new for the average Pakistani, who is as accustomed to pollution as one might be to a blue sky.

However, the situation is rapidly deteriorating. Air pollution is a popular topic of discussion these days, perhaps because our air quality is amongst the worst in the world, and the consequences (like headaches and sore throats) are quickly apparent. It isn’t like lead-contaminated water, for example, which causes long-term repercussions. And the air doesn’t discriminate between social classes: a man in a Mercedes Benz is breathing in the same air as a man in a rickshaw (though the former has a vastly reduced lead intake thanks to the luxury of filtered water). Pollution has literally encompassed everyone.

Contrary to popular news headlines and our esteemed Minister for Climate Change, India is not purposefully causing smog as a tool of “unconventional warfare” in its master plan to destroy Pakistan. It’s all us, and our transport sector is the biggest culprit with deplorable fuel quality and poorly-designed vehicles. And if one embarks on the arduous mission of controlling air pollution, they’d quickly find a myriad of interconnected problems in their way. What does the illiterate man burning plastic or rubber by the roadside know about the toxic gases they’re emitting? The term “sulfur dioxide” would be utter gibberish to him, a jumble of letters in a foreign language. How else can the poverty-stricken farmer clear his field except by burning the crop stubble? The other methods are far too expensive for someone who has scarcely enough to feed his family. And how on earth does one convince a selfish oil refinery owner to sacrifice a small fraction of his profits to purify his oil better so millions of people aren’t adversely affected?

Similar to how a young child with emphysema, a disease typically found in smokers, maybe paying the price for decisions made by faceless businessmen and bureaucrats, a rural family may have just lost their precious little bundle of joy because a factory a few hundred miles away carelessly dumped their toxic waste into the nearest river — deaths from waterborne diseases account for more than half of infant deaths in Pakistan. Next door to that family is a young boy with bone deformities, his legs skewed into an unnatural curve. One of the elder women in their village, affectionately called “maa jee” and admired for her sagacity, is permanently bedridden due to water poisoning. The villagers go about their daily routines as the abandoned wreckage of a water purification plant lies in the distance, silhouetted by the setting sun. It was zealously established a few years ago, but the government clearly didn’t possess the same zeal in maintaining it. As always, the burdens of our shattered societal institutions and values are shouldered most heavily by the lower classes, while the officials once in charge of making sure these people had access to a basic human right sit in air-conditioned rooms mulling over their lofty ambitions like driverless cars or a new bus service.

So what are we doing to fix things? Safety measures are passed around on Facebook and Whatsapp like candies to a group of children. Don’t go outdoors. Wear a mask if you do. Drink lots of water. Here, get these houseplants to help filter out pollutants. The government, on the other hand, is playing with contradictions: launching a public awareness campaign on one hand while minimizing the severity of the situation on the other. The Environment Protection Department has removed older air quality data from its website so as to prevent people from using official figures to examine the change in air quality over the years. And their reported air quality index values are consistently lower than those from private monitors (lower values indicating less severe pollution). Even their air quality index classification operates on poor standards: a value internationally deemed “unhealthy” is actually “satisfactory” for the EPD. Perhaps they consider Pakistanis more resilient than people from other countries.
At any rate, we go on popping Panadol for our smog-induced headaches, minds engaged in more urgent matters, while someone less privileged knows only the tight feeling in his chest and the too-expensive medicines for an illness that he’s never heard of. All the while, the higher-ups play their blame games and border politics. Our people and institutions seem rooted in the past while Pakistan is being propelled forcibly into the future, and we’re oblivious to how our inaction is eroding our lives and leaving the world half-wrecked for our future generations to inherit.

Also Read: Protection from Smog

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