Tackling smog

In a welcome first-step, the Punjab Environment Secretary is taking immediate measures to try and tackle smog and air pollution in the province.

Steel mill and furnace owners have been directed to install adequate emission control systems at the earliest. Or face punitive legal sanctions under the Punjab Environmental Protection Act, 1997 (Amended 2012); including immediate suspension of operations. Though it remains unclear what the final deadline is or if the provincial set-up will be offering subsidies towards this end.

In addition, all new and ongoing infrastructure projects should be reviewed in terms of pollution impact; including those falling under the CPEC framework. For simply put, the smog factor in the Punjab is such that it becomes a hotbed for viral infections. The overall effect being that the labour force faces immense health challenges. Naturally, this risk is more severe when it comes to those working outdoors or even those who travel to work by bicycle or motorbike.

Last year, many civil society initiatives made use of social media to wage a campaign on pollution. These were helpful in as much as they identified where to buy purifiers and surgical masks so as to avoid as much as possible inhaling smog. But this is the government’s job. As well as subsidising those who fall among lower wage brackets; particularly daily wage earners. This is not to mention women, such as domestic workers travelling to and from work.

It is appreciated that the Imran Khan government is not trying to circumvent the issue by blaming, as has happened in the past, the Punjab’s smog and pollution on India. That being said, it is not enough to simply impose punitive measures at the end point in the chain. Rather, to make long-term sustainable changes for a better environment will require the appropriate budgetary commitment. And environmental departments are traditionally the last in the queue when it comes to government funding. Thus what is needed is a comprehensive outline detailing cost as well as implementation and enforcement mechanisms on all these fronts.

In addition, it might also be an idea to ensure health and safety checks when inspecting premises to verify that the proper emission systems have been installed. For far too often do the owners of the means of production treat manual and semi-skilled workers as disposable labour. This has been witnessed with tragic consequences in terms of collapsed mines and factory buildings.

Thus what is needed is an ethical labour policy. To safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable while protecting against indentured labour. For this is the work of the government and not, say, the Chief Justice.  *

Published in Daily Times, September 11th 2018.