Anti-Smog Squad vans chug through suffocating traffic in Lahore, on their way to track down factories emitting smoke – a seemingly futile task in one most polluted cities in the world,
Inside the white vehicle sits an armed escort guarding the six team members, who hold a list of the locations they plan to visit that day.
They scan the gray, heavy sky for telltale plumes of toxic fumes that indicate a factory is breaking environmental laws.
“All we have to do is follow the smoke to reach the source, we don’t even need the lists,” says Ali Ejaz, the environmental department official in charge of the new operation. mid-December.
Operation Five Squad is the latest attempt by authorities in Lahore near the border with India to curb an annual pollution spike This has left more than 11 million residents gasping for air.
Ejaz says they intend to visit 300 industrial factories in the sprawling metropolis that have been blamed for the worst emissions.
air quality in india And Pakistan has gotten worse in recent years, with dangerous winter pollution caused by low-grade diesel fumes and colder temperatures from seasonal crop fumes.
Lahore is regularly ranked as one of the most polluted urban centers in the world and often tops daily rankings.
Hazardous air quality can cause shortness of breath that ranges from restlessness to respiratory tract and heart diseases.
But officials have been slow to act, blaming India for the smog or claiming the figures have been exaggerated.
This year, pollution has settled earlier than usual, blanketing the city in stagnant, filthy gray air for days. Last week, provincial chief minister Usman Buzdar called it a “disaster”.
closed at gunpoint
On a recent mission, one of five teams travels to a neighborhood where smoke emanates from the many factories and mills operating amid the city’s densely populated.
“It is clear that factories are using substandard fuel. These gases are unbearable for people breathing problemsTeam leader Sajid Ali said.
The air is a thick grey, and even with a mask on it is difficult to breathe. There are big gates at the entrances of the factories, where the streets are littered with garbage.
As the team first enters the factory, they can tell that the polluting furnaces have just been extinguished—they’re still red-hot, and the newly forged steel rods are resting on the ground to cool off.
Squad members ask about fuel and machinery.
It emerges that this factory does not have a “scrubber”, a device that removes industrial pollutants from exhaust streams. They swiftly closed it and its workers were evacuated under the watchful eye of armed escort.
This time they went out quietly. But that’s not always the case, says environmental officer Ejaz, who describes these “shooting incidents” as punishing his employees.
Although the squad is backed by legal powers, a lawyer threatens action and instead the two parties agree to shut down only the machinery and not the factory itself.
This is one of the many challenges faced by the authorities.
“A lot of factory owners try to pressure the squad through political influence and connections,” one of the squad’s leaders told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
“It makes our job more difficult … we are forced to make compromises.”
Officials do not want to shut down factories for more than a few days at a time as low-wage laborers are paid day in and day out.
Then there is the broader scale of work.
“Thousands of industrial sites are releasing emissions that simply cannot be dealt with by six or twelve squads within Lahore alone,” says environmental lawyer and activist Rafe Alam.
Ejaz also doesn’t hold much hope.
Even if they could close all of the city’s factories and cut traffic, it would only “reduce the intensity of the smog, but not eliminate it,” he says.
“We will face this for a long time.”