Lahore, Pakistan – For Eman Khosa, a 14-year-old student living in Pakistan’s second-largest city, the start of the last two months of the year is the beginning of familiar irritants – toxic air, allergies, sore throats and a great reluctance to go outside.

“Every year winter starts the same way,” Eman, who is in ninth grade, told Al Jazeera. “Every year around this time there is smog. The government is taking some measures and when the smog season ends, we will return to normality.”

Her mother, Suraya Saleem Khosa, a visual artist, said that while the smog wasn’t quite as bad as usual last year due to weather conditions, this year it was “far more intense.”

“AQI [Air Quality Index] The readings are once again sky high. There is no calm, no wind. “Many ill-conceived government road projects that only increase pollution,” Khosa said.

Air quality classified as “hazardous”.

Nearly 15 million people live in Lahore, the capital of the eastern province of Punjab, which borders India. This year it has hit the headlines again because of its toxic air.

Hundreds of people have reported illnesses such as allergies and respiratory illnesses triggered by the city’s deteriorating air quality.

Lahore was ranked as the city with the worst air quality in the world for three consecutive days this week, according to AirVisual, an international air quality monitoring service.

The index, which measures air pollution, is based on calculations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The city recorded 406, 372 and 422 AQI readings from Tuesday to Thursday and only after a spell of rain on Friday did the AQI drop to 108. Later on Friday it was at 152.

This compares to Friday’s figure of 25 for London, 61 for Istanbul and 88 for Mexico City.

Smog shrouds the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, October 30, 2023 [KM Chaudary/AP]

According to AirVisual, the concentration of tiny particles in Lahore’s air approached 450 this week, which is 30 times higher than the maximum average daily exposure recommended by the World Health Organization and is considered dangerous.

An AQI over 100 is considered “unhealthy,” while an AQI over 300 is considered “dangerous.” Pakistan’s own classification system is more lenient – it considers an AQI above 200 to be “unhealthy” and anything above 400 to be “dangerous”.

“Stubble burning” is to blame

Regardless of whether the air was “hazardous” or merely “unhealthy,” the Punjab government declared a public holiday on Friday and allowed a four-day holiday in the province that included the existing free Thursday.

Public places, restaurants and markets were all closed and the government announced a “lockdown” to improve the environmental situation and force people to stay indoors.

The interim health minister for Punjab, Dr. Javed Akram, said the additional holiday is a one-time measure to reduce traffic in the city, which can help reduce pollution.

But he blamed farmers in Pakistan and India who burn crop pits after the rice harvest to make room for growing wheat. “Stubble burning remains a major challenge, largely taking place in India, and there is not much we can do about it,” he told Al Jazeera.

Mohammad Farooq Alam, deputy director of the Punjab government’s environmental protection department, added: “Crop stubble burning in India is at least five times what Pakistani farmers burn.” If the wind direction is on our side, there is little we can do about it .”

He said the provincial government has taken steps where it could, such as fining local farmers and exploring other options for disposing of agricultural waste.

However, he also acknowledged: “Vehicle pollution is a major reason for the deterioration of our environment.”

October and late November atmospheric conditions in the region also caused pollutants to be trapped closer to the ground, worsening smog intensity, Alam added.

Police patrol a market in Lahore on November 10, 2023, as the government imposed a four-day lockdown to combat acute smog conditions. Critics say such stay-in orders are unenforceable [Arif Ali/AFP]

Sara Hayat, a lawyer specializing in climate law, policy and advocacy in Pakistan, said that while she agreed with the government’s decision to announce a lockdown now, “institutional policies” made enforcement impossible.

“The government wants to crack down, but it never succeeds because it doesn’t spread the necessary awareness first. This is just a temporary measure without any warning and will not be useful without long-term guidelines,” the Lahore-based lawyer told Al Jazeera.

“Mentally exhausting”

For the citizens of Lahore, the shutdown is just another disruption to their daily lives, on top of the toxic air that they have no choice but to breathe.

Moazzam Maqsood, a business owner based in Gawalmandi, one of Lahore’s more densely populated areas, said the government’s decision to close markets had caused his printing business losses worth “hundreds of thousands” of rupees (100,000 rupees is equivalent to $353). ). ).

“We can’t go to the market, we can’t let our employees come to the office either, which leads to loss of business. “But then sitting at home and breathing this foul air doesn’t help my health either,” he said.

Back at home with her 14-year-old daughter, Khosa said she is lucky to own an air purifier – a machine that mitigates the physical, but not mental, effects of smog season.

“We stock up on face masks and constantly check that all the windows are closed, but mentally it’s tiring,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s sad and depressing and weighs us all down. We are no longer looking forward to spending the autumn in Lahore.”

Eman said that going to school physically was very important to her after living through the COVID-19 pandemic for two years during which she took classes online. The smog season disrupts their everyday lives.

“We have exams coming up and need to go to school to prepare, but since the school is closed we can’t do that. I love playing tennis in the evenings, but I can’t do that because that’s when the smog is the worst.

“Some of my classmates have developed allergies and asthma. We hardly have the opportunity to go out now.”

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