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How India and Pakistan are fighting the pollution menace

As Delhiites choke on smog, are efforts across the border efforts to make Pakistan “clean and green” bearing fruit?

The newly elected Government of Pakistan under Prime Minister Imran Khan had made tackling environmental challenges an election agenda. Since coming to office, Khan has launched his vision for a “Clean, Green Pakistan” – with the ambitious pledge to make Pakistan cleaner than Europe within the next five years.

The campaign is tackling issues such as pollution, climate change, and deforestation. Steps taken range from enhancing tree cover by planting billions of trees to renewable ways of handling waste, such as proper disposal and converting it into energy. Public awareness about cleanliness and sustainable living will form a key part of the campaign.  

“Rising pollution will mar the future of our upcoming generations,” Khan said at an event launching the campaign in Islamabad last month. One key step taken by the Government of Pakistan has been the establishment of a Smog Commission. It has cracked down on kilns by closing many units and training owners to shift to the zigzag technology. The government has also halted the crop burning and is working on an alternate ‘zero tillage seeding’  technology.

“Air pollution is believed to be responsible for 1.1 million deaths annually”

Let’s now turn to India and its political will on tackling pollution. Crop burning and diesel vehicles still remain biggest reasons for pollution even as Diwali fumes have added to the toxicity. The opposition is accusing Modi of being silent on pollution. They assert that the priority of his flagship ‘Clean India Campaign’ should be to clean the air India breathes but nothing has been done.

India has been facing severe challenges in terms of its environmental health in recent years. Named the worst country in the world in terms of its environmental health, India is home to the fourteen most polluted cities in the world. Air pollution is believed to be responsible for 1.1 million deaths annually – a crisis which disproportionately affects those living in rural areas. Without timely intervention, pollution-related deaths could triple by 2050.

Pollution levels in Delhi the day after Diwali. (Image credit: SAFAR).

Still no political efforts were made to ask people not to burn firecrackers on the night of Diwali. Diwali was followed by a significant rise in pollution levels.

The burning of crop residue by farmers in Delhi’s neighbouring states of Haryana and Punjab is one noticeable factor contributing to the poor air quality. Yet governments of both states have been unsuccessful in curtailing the paddy pollution.

“The tragedy is that there is no political will at all either on the part of the federal government or the state government of Delhi and, as a result, we can see both blaming each other for the crisis that we are in,” Yogendra Yadav, a political polling expert told Reuters. “Whatever little government action you get to see is because of the pressure that environmental activists and the Supreme Court get to exert.”

“The NCAP aspires for a 35 percent reduction in pollution levels within the next three years. Within the next five years, the aim is to bring pollution down by fifty percent.”

Lung replicas illustrating the effect on the lungs after one day and six days of pollution. (Image credit: Lung Care Foundation).

The effects of air pollution on public health are far-reaching. Doctors at a Delhi hospital illustrated this by displaying a replica of a pair of lungs, made with material equivalent to human lung). On the first day, the lung was pure white. On the sixth day, it had noticeably discoloured. Doctors concluded that the impact of air pollution on public health is akin to smoking 15-20 cigarettes per day.

The Indian government has released a National Clean Air Program (NCAP), with the aim of reducing pollution across 102 cities. The NCAP aspires for a 35 percent reduction in pollution levels within the next three years. Within the next five years, the aim is to bring pollution down by fifty percent. Within the next decade, the NCAP hopes to bring pollution levels down by between seventy and eighty percent in the targeted cities.

For such a plan to have effect, clear policy proposals need to be implemented. This ought to incorporate a multisectoral approach at the central, state, regional and even district levels. Setting up monitoring systems to accurately reflect the burden of air pollution. Raising public awareness of environmentally friendly practises – not just on Diwali, but all year round – is also vital. Ensuring responsible, sustainable practice across sectors ranging from heavy industry to agriculture is also a must.


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