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Pakistan anti-smog squads target factories as winter sets in

AFP . Lahore
29 Nov 2021 00:00:00 | Update: 29 Nov 2021 01:33:48
Pakistan anti-smog squads target factories as winter sets in

The anti-smog squad van careens through choking traffic in Lahore, 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 grey, heavy sky for telltale plumes of toxic smoke that indicate a factory is breaking environmental laws.

"All we need to do is follow the smoke to get to the source, we don't even need the lists," says Ali Ijaz, the environment department official in charge of the new operation, which is due to run for a month until mid-December.

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.

Ijaz says they intend to visit 300 industrial factories in the sprawling metropolis that have been identified as being responsible for the worst emissions. 

Air quality in India and Pakistan has deteriorated in recent 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 centres, and frequently tops daily rankings. 

The hazardous air quality can cause breathing issues that range from discomfort to respiratory tract and heart diseases.

But authorities have been slow to act, blaming the smog on arch-rival India or claiming the figures are exaggerated.

This year the pollution has settled in earlier than usual, blanketing the city in stagnant, dirty grey air for days. Last week, provincial chief minister Usman Buzdar called it a "calamity."

Closed at gunpoint

On a recent mission, one of the five teams heads to a neighbourhood where smoke billows 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 tells AFP.

The air is a thick grey, and even with masks on it is difficult to breathe. Piles of trash litter the streets where large gates mark the entrances to the factories.