By Aneeq Ejaz
The exhale of a smoker, the cough of a wanderer, the soot of a kebab shop, all of it ends up in the air we breathe. A larger share is claimed by construction dust, vehicular exhaust and industrial emissions. For the past few days, Lahore has been under the cloak of an instagram-like yellow haze. The sky of Lahore seems to have vomited back on us a dry stew of microbes, minerals, soil and metal. The toxic particles have a special fondness for the inner walls of the nostrils, giving you a poisonous sensation and often resulting in instant migraine, sneeze, eye-burn and other allergic reactions.
On most days of the year, the airborne pollutants stick in the clouds, get carried away by the wind or settle down by the night as the new day begins relatively afresh. Not in the cold, dry days of winter though, where this thick mixture hangs tight and diminishes the outdoor activity of the city. And yet, this winter smog is only the amplification of what workers on construction sites and vendors on dust-laced roads experience throughout the year as cars, bikes and rickshaws bathe them in sulphuric emissions. Only this time the car-owners can’t insulate themselves as the wave rises from crumbling roads and industrial zones to engulf even the most developed enclosures of the city, stirring a storm on social media.
With outrage comes debates and questions. Some pin the blame on government’s construction sites, others point to the coal power plants across the border. Others still see vindication of their views on clothing. I heard an imam explain why the religious injunction of face-veil for women stands vindicated in these troubling times as he went on to prescribe Saudi-style checkered scarf for the male form. In the scramble for masks and other cover-ups is lost the reality that an ordinary cloth, while it may avert the toxic sensation and tumult in the head, is fundamentally unable to stop the pollutants that measure in micrometers and are responsible for terminable diseases like lung cancer.
Among the things that unite the outdoor workers of Lahore, air pollution must be among the top. The air that reaches them is not mediated by air-conditioners, fresheners and purifiers. They all breathe the same particles and spend their days being harassed by the blinding, asphyxiating stream of dust. This dust ends up as sediment on the scalp, grease on the skin, wax in the ears, amber stain in the eyes and charring of the lungs. If human body is a walking inventory of the quality of air, water and light around it, then air pollution leaves its mark on the flesh like a cake becoming stale or a white candle revealing the impurities its wax carries. In a shock study published in September, 2016, scientists at Lancaster University found that tiny iron particles from vehicle emissions make their way into the brain, and are a possible cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
Camera is good at capturing many things; outdoor pollution is not one of them. Beyond scientific explanations and medical detail lies the lived experience that eludes articulation. The outdoor experience of an average worker is painful, debilitating and profoundly disorienting. It chips away at the human composure and concentration, and pecks at the life-years by hollowing you out from within and guaranteeing a disease-ridden old age. That too in a country where healthcare is a privilege and slow, painful and premature death is considered a part of life.
Air pollution raises the most fundamental questions about the ownership of the city and the social contract between citizens and the state. Do people have the right to walk outdoors without getting sick? Do citizens have the right to decide what moves on the roads and what gets built? Should it be legal to ban polluting vehicles on some roads and not on others? Right now, as the opposition wants the government to “clear the air” on Panama leaks, perhaps the outdoor workers should also come together and demand the same. Only more literally.
Aneeq Ejaz. Student of literature currently enrolled in Masters in English Literature at Government College University, Lahore