Battle for Breath

Clearing the air between India and Pakistan

A farmer in Indian Punjab watches as the stubble on his field burns. The Punjab government pays farmers a small amount to hire labourers to clear stubble instead of burning it, but this amount is often too little. Neha Thirani Bagri
A farmer in Indian Punjab watches as the stubble on his field burns. The Punjab government pays farmers a small amount to hire labourers to clear stubble instead of burning it, but this amount is often too little. Neha Thirani Bagri
25 April, 2021

IN EARLY NOVEMBER 2020, ten kilometres from the border with Pakistan, Shinda Singh stood at the edge of his field in Bhura Kohna village, in Indian Punjab, watching it spew columns of black smoke into an already hazy sky. The previous day, he had finished harvesting his rice crop, leaving behind clumps of straw-like stubble a foot high. That morning, he had poured kerosene across his land and set fire to it. Within an hour, most of the stubble had caught fire, turning it from yellow to a deep, charred black.

His eyes stung in the smog, but he felt no remorse. After all, what choice did he have?

Across the border, in the village of Sirhali Kalan, the fires abated days ago. In Pakistani Punjab, the agricultural cycle is roughly two weeks ahead of the one on the Indian side. But even when you can see evidence of the burning of crop residue—that tell-tale blistered stubble—no one will admit to it. Only “outsiders” burn their fields, the villagers insisted. Last year, the mosque broadcast reminders from the pulpit: crop burning is banned under provincial law, with penalties of up to 50,000 Pakistani rupees and possible imprisonment. In Indian Punjab, in 2019, officials tried a different tack: they offered compensation to farmers who did not burn crop residue, about Rs 2,500 per acre for expenses incurred in manually clearing the land. And yet, by 15 November, the state had recorded 74,000 incidents of stubble burning for the season—the highest number in four years.

Shinda Singh, aged 50, was one of the farmers who abstained from stubble-burning last year. Instead, he hired labourers to clear his land, spending Rs 4,000 on the exercise. “We thought that the government would pay us to remove the stubble but we didn’t get any money from them,” he said. “That is why this year I decided to burn it.”

In recent years, the field on fire—an intuitively horrifying image—has become the face of air pollution in the subcontinent, and Punjab, on either side of the India-Pakistan border. An easy scapegoat. Most experts will tell you, however, that it is not the main cause of the problem. Farmers on both sides of the border say this too, a knowledge borne from instinct. Crop burning, after all, is not a new phenomenon; at the very least, it predates the occurrence of smog in Punjab: a portmanteau of smoke and fog, increasingly described as “a fifth season” in the region.

Air pollution is a year-round problem. Smog is seasonal. It is the result of a temperature inversion in the Punjab plains during winter: cold air, trapped under warm air, prevents pollutants from dispersing into the wider atmosphere. First coined in the late nineteenth century to describe low-hanging pollution smothering London—the result of burning coal—the smog of today is different, photochemical in nature: it is produced when sunlight reacts with nitrogen oxides—from car exhaust, coal power plants, and factory emissions—and at least one “volatile organic compound,” released from gasoline, paints, many cleaning solvents and open fires. When sunlight hits these chemicals, they form airborne particles and ground-level ozone. The ozone layer high up in the atmosphere protects us from ultraviolet radiation, but ozone close to the ground can damage lung tissue, irritate eyes and endanger people with respiratory illnesses like asthma.

The farmers in Punjab do not dispute the existence of smog. They feel it. One farmer in the Pakistani district of Kasur described how, on smoggy days, it felt like someone was rubbing chillies in your eyes. Gurcharan Singh, in the border village of Nurwala on the Indian side, said that, during November and December, he often felt suffocated and out of breath. When fires were lit in fields besides village roads, it became so difficult to see clearly that accidents occurred. Ghulam Mustafa, on the Pakistani side, said there were days when it felt as if the sun had set at noon, and that light was so scarce that it was affecting crop height and yield.

Jagwant Singh, aged 46, is a farmer in the Indian village of Mastgarh, but his family owns land—a total of 12 acres—on both sides of the border. The days he crosses over to tend to his fields in Pakistani Punjab are unpleasant and anxiety-ridden. He sleeps fitfully the night before, packs his lunch, and leaves his home at 7 am for the border check-point, some 12 kilometres away. The gates open at 10 am, by which time he and the labourers he has hired for the day have been waiting in line for several hours already. When his turn comes, the border guards inspect his tractor and everyone’s identity documents. Some days, they ask them to remove their shoes to check for packets of drugs. On other days, Singh readies everything only to find the border gate closed. After the militant attack against Indian security forces in Pulwama, in February 2019, the gates were closed for months, causing massive crop losses for many farmers.

The time that Jagwant Singh spends in Pakistan, however fleeting—he reaches his land by noon and must leave by 3 pm—has made him more attuned to the transborder nature of smog than most. Crop-burning, he noted, is common among poor farmers on both sides of the border. And yet, every November, the smog crisis devolves into a well-practiced blame game: Pakistani ministers attribute poor air to farmers burning stubble in India, while their Indian counterparts hurl the accusation back at farmers in Pakistan—or, occasionally, China.

In 2017, Shehbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Pakistani Punjab, wrote a letter to his Indian counterpart, Amarinder Singh. Shahbaz expressed his belief “that it is in the interest of the people of both Punjabs to make a collective effort towards identifying technologies and business methods that may eliminate the need to burn rice-stubble and help control smog formation.” The letter was interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on who was reading it. Some saw in it an explicit acknowledgment of air pollution as a shared, transborder crisis. Others read it as a political attempt to position stubble-burning—specifically, stubble-burning in India—as the central cause of a complex problem. Whatever the intent, the letter does not seem to have ever received a response.

The focus on crop-burning in the discourse on air pollution in South Asia has ebbed slightly in the past two years, after a report by the American think tank RAND Corporation concluded, using NASA data, that while fire activity is more prevalent in Indian Punjab during winter months, it is not scientifically possible, given atmospheric patterns, for smoke in India to carry to Pakistan. What has not changed, however, is the seasonal nature of coverage of the topic: because the effects of air pollution are most visible in the form of winter smog, the crisis usually only receives attention between November and March. Moreover, macro-level myth-busting of the sort put forth by RAND is rare, in large part because information—comparable data, transborder research—does not flow freely between India and Pakistan. At the moment, exchange only occurs in fits and starts and in piecemeal form: on WhatsApp groups of concerned citizens residing in either country, and at occasional meetings between researchers at conferences in some third country.

Courtesy: EOS Dawn

Given the dimensions of the crisis, these efforts are not enough. After all, even conservative estimates say that more than 500,000 Indians and Pakistanis die every year due to air pollution. As of today, 89 of the 200 most polluted cities in the world are located in South Asia, with Delhi and Lahore ranking the highest in terms of air toxicity among the globe’s megacities. Bad air is a shared existential threat for Indians and Pakistanis (new research shows it may even be linked to greater COVID-19 mortality). A small but determined group of Indians and Pakistanis are working—separately and together—to push for change, hoping, in the process, to create templates for cross-border collaboration that are not necessarily beholden to changing political currents. 

IN 2017, Abid Omar moved back to Karachi after five years abroad in Beijing. Living in China, he often circumvented the country’s Great Firewall to access Twitter, which remains officially blocked there. In 2008, the US embassy in Beijing had installed a rooftop air-quality monitor and begun automatically tweeting out hourly data on the concentration of PM2.5 particles—among the most dangerous types of air pollutants. Omar recalled dark and overcast days in the city, the sun barely visible; the embassy data on Twitter warned him that the PM2.5 count was spiking, but when he would bring it up with his colleagues they looked at him as if he was mad. He remembered them saying that it was just a beautiful foggy day.

Those overcast days in Beijing reminded Omar of Lahore: how highways into the city would shut down on winter nights because of poor visibility, and flights would be frequently delayed. From what he remembered, this was not the norm even ten years ago. Was it pollution? Was it merely fog? He wanted to know.

In 2016, he bought a handful of low-cost air quality monitors and persuaded friends and relatives in major Pakistani cities—Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Islamabad—to keep them in their homes. The monitors went online—that is, they began reporting air quality data—in early 2017. What motivated Omar, who is primarily a businessman and was still living abroad at the time, was that he saw the role of public data—including from the US embassy in Beijing—in galvanising ordinary Chinese people to pressure their government to monitor and subsequently address air pollution in their cities. As he began collecting data, he approached journalists both local and foreign, hoping to raise awareness—but initially he had little luck. “A lot of journalists told me the numbers had to be world-record shattering for it to be reported as news,” Omar recalled.

By the time winter rolled around, the situation was bad enough that the world was taking notice. The environmental lawyer Rafay Alam—one of the hosts of Omar’s monitors in Lahore—petitioned the Lahore High Court to step in. The court set up a commission to look at the sources contributing to smog and find ways to mitigate the problem.

“This little monitor became quite famous,” Alam said, laughing. “It was entered in the court record, it appeared in the papers.”

Compared to Pakistan, air monitoring in India is relatively more advanced and widespread. Ronak Sutaria, is the founder of Respirer Living Sciences, a real-time air quality monitoring startup based in Mumbai. His company has installed about 500 low-cost sensors across India to monitor ambient air quality and understand long-term pollution trends. There are numerous other initiatives of this kind too.

But, Sutaria pointed out, there is very little on-the-ground data on air quality in rural India. Others voice similar concerns. “Today, if you look at all of those monitoring stations that India has, they’re all in the urban areas,” Kartik Ganesan, a fellow at the Delhi-based non-profit Council on Energy, Environment and Water, told us. “You don’t have monitoring devices in rural areas, because nobody really thinks about rural areas.”

Research using satellite imagery and other sources has confirmed that rural air pollution is a severe problem too, especially across the Indo-Gangetic plains. Besides outdoor pollution from such things as burning agricultural waste, another major factor in rural areas is indoor air pollution caused by wood-burning stoves—and women suffer the most from it.

Sukhwindar Kaur, a 65-year-old resident of Rodawala Khurd village in Indian Punjab, is so accustomed to breathing in the smoke from her stove that she scarcely notices it. Though her family bought a cooking-gas cylinder in August 2019, it lay covered by a tarp near the entrance of her home. Her husband owns a small plot of land one and a half acres in size, where they grow only enough rice and wheat to feed their family of eight. To supplement their income, her husband works as a porter at the Indian border, carrying sacks of goods that come from Pakistan to make Rs 200 a day. To refill the gas cylinder would cost Rs 670 each month, and so, like most families in the village, they continue to cook with wood.

“I have spent my whole life using this kind of stove,” Kaur said. “How can I say now that it causes me any difficulty? Of course, if the cylinder was cheaper then I would prefer to use it.”

For now, concerned citizens like Sutaria and Omar are doing what they can in the cities at least. In 2019, the two happened to attend a workshop together in Kathmandu. Realising that air quality is still difficult to compare across their two countries, the two decided to conduct a pilot project, installing air quality monitors of the same kind on both sides of the border. Even this relatively straightforward initiative had to contend with geopolitical hurdles: it is prohibitively complicated to ship anything directly from Mumbai to Karachi.

For this and other reasons, Sutaria believed citizens’ initiatives like this are ultimately limited in their impact. “A lot of data and knowledge sharing can happen if the right government bodies are mobilised,” he said. “Citizen initiatives can, of course, happen independently of government work. That can have an impact but it will take much longer.”

Those initiatives also include collectives of concerned urban mothers on either side of the border—Warrior Moms in India and Scary Ammi in Pakistan—that are attempting to start a conversation about the lack of clean air for their children. While both groups have managed to create a sizable following on social media, translating that mobilisation into change on the ground has proven difficult in both countries. And the coronavirus pandemic has made it even tougher to galvanise action on this issue.

“Every time I approach the government, they say, we’re on an emergency footing,” Ayesha Nasir, who launched the Ammis Against Smog campaign in Lahore in 2019, said. “And obviously I understand—people are dying, hospitals are overwhelmed, we’re running out of ventilators. To go and talk about smog seemed insensitive—I mean, smog is killing us, but it’s killing our tomorrow. Corona is killing us today.”

Other activists in Pakistan complain that government officials spend far too much time trying to undermine their work, and precious little addressing the issues they point to. Last November, for instance, the environmental protection agency for Pakistani Punjab agency circulated a video on WhatsApp demonstrating that steam scrambled the readings on the low-cost sensors that Alam and others have been using to track air pollution. The intended implication, it seemed, was that these devices could not be trusted. “As of the last year and a half, there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar monitor in Lahore—and that reports even higher air pollution,” Alam said. He was referring to the reference-quality monitor installed on the rooftop of the US consulate in Lahore in 2019—a replica of the initiative in Beijing as part of a US government push for “green diplomacy.” “I feel like we’re those mice in a lab—running but not going anywhere,” Alam said.

The environmental agency itself has only three monitoring devices for the entire province of Pakistani Punjab, said Alam—one of them stationed at Wagah, to closely monitor the air over the border-crossing with India.

IN APRIL 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal, killing nearly nine thousand people and destroying nearly all the coal-burning brick kilns in the Kathmandu valley. When the kilns were rebuilt, they adopted a new design, employing “zigzag” technology. This allows for more efficient burning of coal, and reduces pollution output by around 60 percent, according to experts at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. (Some activists dispute this.) ICIMOD, based in Kathmandu, works in countries all along the arc of the Himalayas, including Pakistan and India. It had spent years trying to convince brick kiln owners in Nepal to transition to zigzag technology, but it was only with the earthquake that it made headway.

Bidya Banmali Pradhan, who leads ICIMOD’s work on atmospheric and air pollution, said the organisation reached out to kiln owners in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, invoking Nepal’s example. Rather than hearing from activists, it was the positive experience of their Nepali peers that convinced many to adopt zigzag technology too. Now, Pradhan said, kiln owners across South Asia exchange notes and share ideas on an active WhatsApp group.

Governments in both Punjabs have now mandated the use of zigzag technology, with penalties and indefinite closures for any kiln owners who refuse. For 27-year-old Kumar, a wiry young man from Uttar Pradesh who has been working in brick kilns in Indian Punjab for the past six years, the new technology has meant his face and arms are no longer constantly covered with fine black powder from the coal fires. In winter seasons past, Kumar’s throat would itch from inhaling thick black smoke all day; invariably, he would develop a cough.

“Earlier the work felt very dirty,” he said. “Now this is clean, dignified work.”

A brick kiln in Pakistani Punjab's Kasur district. Only some brick kilns in Pakistani Punjab have switched to zigzag technology. Alizeh Kohari

On the Pakistani side, as in India, the smoke stacks that punctuate rural farmland are now emitting dainty plumes of white smoke. Others stand dormant. At a kiln along the motorway in Kasur, Mudassir Ali, the owner, was in a particularly chatty mood. He had switched over to zigzag, he said, but he knew many others that cannot afford to. They fired up at night, he claimed, when the tell-tale black smoke from their kilns blends into the night sky.

Pallavi Pant, a Boston-based scientist who studies the health implications of particulate matter and also tracks public engagement on the issue of air pollution, said the proliferation of zigzag technology is a good example of effective information-sharing across the region. Not all trends are positive, however: she worried, for instance, that other countries may copy India’s enthusiastic embrace of the “smog tower,” a structure designed as a large-scale air purifier that experts rubbish as a pseudoscientific waste. “It’s become a nuisance, this idea,” Pant said. “The concept just can’t work outdoors, in the open air, and the concern is that it might take away from other initiatives trying to reduce emissions at source.” Delhi inaugurated its first such structure in January last year, mere months after a panel decided the city’s notorious air pollution could be combated by erecting 213 smog towers. By November, Lahore announced it would install 15 smog towers.

“I think, because of growing public demand, policy makers are looking for things they can do right now to show they’re trying to control air pollution,” Pant explained. “Smog towers are a part of that. There are other similar initiatives, not just in India but in the region. But advocacy groups are doing a pretty good job in saying stay true to the mission—reduce emissions at source.”

Ganesan and Alam echoed this. “The technology already exists, which is to control at source, which is to implement all the policies that will ensure that those polluting sources will not be polluting,” Ganesan said. “That’s the technology that you need. If you’re looking for something that will clean up the air, that’s not going to happen. You can’t clean up this volume of air.” Alam was also ambivalent about reconfigured brick kilns. “This may be my background as a commercial lawyer,” he said, “but I think any measure that favours a particular technology as opposed to having broad standards is not good.”

“One thing that’s getting a little lost in translation,” Pant said, “is that we see people demanding we monitor air pollution, everywhere and all the time, but there’s relatively little thought put into how we will use this data, what the quality is. There’s higher priority given to technological solutions—we’ll install all these fancy sensors, we’ll have all this data—but then you don’t know what to do with it. People are catching on now, though: they’re saying, okay, we want you to monitor the air quality—but then we want you to use that data to see if your actual interventions are working.”

“It’s important to know what technologies are working, what is not working,” Bharati Chaturvedi, who heads the Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, agreed. “It is important that that experience is shared.” Cross-border collaboration can prove immensely fruitful in this regard—especially in sharing technology and best practices for monitoring and data analysis, for instance, or relevant public-health information. Chaturvedi spent two years in Pakistan when her husband served as the Indian high commissioner to the country. During her time there, she said, she organised events on environmental issues that brought together individuals from both sides of the border.

Pradhan, at ICIMOD, said the organisation is collaborating with NASA to create an air pollution “dashboard” for the region, using open-source remote sensing and satellite data. She hoped the platform will serve as an example for further data sharing. In her experience so far, she added, national governments in the region are reluctant to share their data.

FOR THE PAST SIXTY YEARS, the governments of India and Pakistan have been exchanging information on another shared resource: water. The Indus Waters Treaty, brokered by the World Bank and ratified in 1960 by Jawaharlal Nehru and Ayub Khan, allocates 20 percent of the water that flows through the Indus and its five tributaries to India, while allowing Pakistan to retain rights over the remaining 80 percent. It is often pointed out that, despite multiple military conflagrations, India and Pakistan have not engaged in any water wars since the treaty was signed, opting instead for legal redressal within the framework it defines.

The Indus Waters Treaty is often touted as one of the most successful water-sharing endeavours in the world, and one of the few examples of India–Pakistan collaboration—yet numerous observers are leery of holding it up as a template for tackling the issue of air.  

“It’s not an example,” the environmental lawyer Rafay Alam emphasised.  “I think it was sold to us as a successful treaty because it was a World Bank product … and you’re not going to have admissions of failure on their part.” The treaty, he explained, “with the construction of environmentally destructive hydropower plants and replacement canals, has created incredible wealth inequities, monopolies and political instability, alongside damage to the ecosystem.”

The treaty’s mechanism for conflict resolution is not worth emulating either, Alam argued. It comprises a number of distinct procedures: “questions” are handled by a permanent Indus Commission; “differences” are to be resolved by a neutral expert; and “disputes” are to be referred to a seven-member court of arbitration. A current point of contention is India’s construction of the Kishanganga and Ratle hydroelectric power plants on the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers. Pakistan wants to set up a court of arbitration to resolve the matter; India wants to appoint a neutral expert. “The treaty isn’t working,” Alam said. “The two parties can’t even decide where to disagree.”

“The thing is,” said Shazia Rafi, the president and convener of the international advocacy group Air Quality Asia, “our governments have already made commitments to improving air quality in two agreements: the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which aren’t legally binding, and the Paris Climate Agreement, which we’ve ratified. Those targets are very clear.” Other platforms for state-level cooperation include environmental mechanisms under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and the ponderously named Malé Declaration on Control and Prevention of Air Pollution and Its Likely Transboundary Effects for South Asia, a ministry-level regional agreement that includes India and Pakistan. “While the agreement is still there, it is a bit dormant,” Pradhan admitted. “I think if we could revive and really try to work towards it, this is a very good platform not only for Pakistan and India, but the whole of South Asia.” It is worth noting, however, that the Malé Declaration is not legally binding, and includes no accountability stipulations or mechanisms.  

There are some promising precedents for regional air quality treaties in other parts of Asia—for instance, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, ratified by all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—but most observers are not optimistic about something similar for South Asia. The ASEAN agreement works, some observers say, because it involves several countries of comparable economic size that, crucially, are not mired in the same level of political animosity prevalent between many South Asian governments. 

When it comes to India and Pakistan, Rafi said, Air Quality Asia takes the approach that “while working on the same principles that would go into a bilateral agreement, we would achieve more on air pollution if each country works to reduce air pollution on its own on both sides of the border.” Even if there is air pollution that crosses over from one country to another, she explained, it may be more fruitful for each country to focus on reducing emissions originating at home. “And to rely on the thought—it’s a difficult thought—that within, say, India, there’s enough pressure from their own citizens for a reduction in their air pollution levels. That is the better model.”

Brick kilns and crop burning, Rafi added, are low-hanging fruit. More than 40 percent of urban air pollution is the result of using poor fuel, particularly in the transport sector, he said. As of 2021, the Pakistani government has banned imports of diesel that falls short of the Euro-V standard—though not out of environmental concern, but because the country’s main diesel supplier, Kuwait, ceased production of lower-standard diesel altogether. There have also been efforts towards promoting electrical vehicles, in order to further reduce emissions.

“I think there’s been further movement on the Indian side in this regard,” Rafi, originally from Lahore, said. “There’s been a much more active civil society working on environmental issues there, and a fairly robust business sector that’s seen a business opportunity in both the electric vehicle and the renewable energy market. So they are moving faster. But India has already invested decades into coal plants and pulling back has its own costs. We haven’t gone too far down that road.”

Rafi continued, “What we need is a combination of civic and legal activism that says, ‘here is what is being promised at the global level.’ The governments’ first question is going to be, where will the money come from to transition—and our answer to that is, the money is already leaking out of your GDP. In the US, enforcement was the result of lawsuits against polluters. It didn’t happen through government subsidies—businesses have already invested in equipment, in producing without emission filters. They’re not going to transition just because their heart tells them to.” But, Rafi warned, “court cases take a long time, penalties take ages to enforce. It took the US thirty years. We don’t have that. We have less than five.” 

In February, long past crop-burning season, after the government said that more than half of local brick kilns had converted to zigzag technology, smog descended upon Lahore once again. Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, Pakistan’s federal minister of science and technology tweeted, “Primary reason of fog in Lahore is burning of agricultural waste in East Punjab,”—that is, Indian Punjab. “evidence of this fact is meters show air at Wahga is much more polluted than Lahore city…” Hussain added that his ministry “is planning to install fog towers in Lahore to reduce smog,” and promote electric vehicles “to help in long term”. It was a triple whammy: misinformation, bad science and poor priorities, all rolled into one. 

“We are back to zero point,” a member of a WhatsApp groups of concerned citizens declared. “I give up.”

A version of this story appeared simultaneously in Dawn, EOS. The reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.