An anti-smog squad van careens through choking traffic in Lahore, Pakistan, on its way to track down factories belching out smoke — a seemingly futile task in one of the world’s most polluted cities.
Inside the white vehicle sits an armed escort protecting the six members of the team, who clutch a list of locations they plan to inspect that day.
They scan the gray, heavy sky for telltale plumes of toxic smoke that indicate a factory is breaching environmental laws.
“All we need to do is follow the smoke to get to the source, we don’t even need the lists,” Punjab Environment Protection Department Deputy Director Ali Ijaz said.
The operation’s five squads are the latest effort by authorities in Lahore, near the border with India, to curb an annual pollution spike that has left more than 11 million residents gasping for air.
The teams intend to visit 300 industrial factories in the sprawling metropolis that have been identified as being responsible for the worst emissions, said Ijaz, who is in charge of the new operation, which is due to run for a month until the middle of next month.
Air quality in India and Pakistan has deteriorated in the past few years, with winter’s hazardous pollution driven by a mixture of low-grade diesel fumes and smoke from seasonal crop burn off, worsened by the colder temperatures.
Lahore is routinely ranked as one of the world’s most polluted urban centers, and frequently tops daily rankings.
The hazardous air quality can cause breathing issues that range from discomfort to respiratory tract and heart diseases.
However, Pakistani authorities have been slow to act, blaming the smog on arch-rival India or saying that the figures are exaggerated.
This year, the pollution has settled in earlier than usual, blanketing the city in stagnant, dirty gray air for days.
Last week, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar called it a “calamity.”
On a recent mission, one of the five teams were headed to a neighborhood where smoke billowed from numerous factories and mills that operate among the city’s dense population.
“It’s clear the factories are using sub-standard fuel. These gases are unbearable for people with breathing issues,” team leader Sajid Ali said.
The air was thick and gray, and even with masks on, it was difficult to breathe.
Piles of trash littered the streets where large gates marked the entrances to the factories.
As the team entered the first factory, they could tell that the polluting furnaces had only just been extinguished — they were still red-hot, and newly forged steel rods were resting on the ground to cool.
The squad members asked about the fuel and machinery. It emerged that the factory was missing a “scrubber,” a device that removes industrial pollutants from exhaust streams.
They swiftly shut it down, and its workers were evacuated under the sharp eye of the armed escort.
This time, they streamed out silently, but that has not always been the case, Ijaz said, describing “firing incidents” targeting his staff.
Although the squad is backed by legal powers, a factory lawyer threatened action and the two sides instead agreed to simply seal off the machinery, and not the factory itself.
It is one of the numerous challenges faced by authorities.
“A lot of factory owners try to pressure the squad through political influence and connections,” one of the squad leaders told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity. “It makes our work more difficult... We are forced to reach compromises.”
Authorities do not want to shut factories for more than a few days at a time, because the low-wage laborers are paid by the day.
Then there is the sheer scale of the task.
“There are thousands of industrial sites releasing emissions that cannot be tackled by six or twelve squads within just Lahore,” environmental lawyer Rafay Alam said, dismissing the smog squad initiative as “cosmetic.”
Ijaz also does not hold out much hope.
Even if they could shut down all of the city’s factories and cut traffic, that would only “reduce the smog’s intensity, but not eliminate it,” he said. “We will face this for the long-term.”
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