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LHC directs businesses to halve staff attendance to cut air pollution

LAHORE: In the wake of increasing toxic air pollution across the city, Lahore High Court (LHC) on Thursday directed private offices to allow 50 percent of their employees to work from home.

Pakistan’s second-largest city is choking on smog, driven in part by smoke from bricks kiln and steel mills, burning of rice stubble and garbage, growing numbers of vehicles on the road and large-scale losses of trees as the expanding city makes way for new roads and buildings, residents say.

Many in the city of 11 million complain of headaches and burning eyes and throats as air pollution levels this winter have on some days hit five times the legal limit, according to a global air quality index that many in Lahore check via the AirVisual phone app.

During the hearing, the court ordered the concerned authorities to summon sessions regarding the employees working in the government sector.

On the other hand, Lahore has been declared the second-most polluted city globally. The city had an air quality ranking of 367, well over the hazardous level of 300, according to IQAir, the technology company that operates the AirVisual monitoring platform.

The worst quality of air was recorded in Gulberg as AQI reached 564, followed by Kot Lakhpat 563, Davis Road 513, Defence 487, Township 465, Bahria Orchard 413, Allama Iqbal Town 422, Punjab University 475 and Anar Kali Bazar at 416.

Residents choking in acrid smog pleaded with officials to take action. Air pollution has worsened in Pakistan in recent years, as a mixture of low-grade diesel fumes, smoke from seasonal crop burn off, and colder winter temperatures coalesce into stagnant clouds of smog.

Lahore, a bustling megacity of more than 11 million people in Punjab province near the border with India, consistently ranks among the worst cities in the world for air pollution.

In recent years residents have built their own air purifiers and taken out lawsuits against government officials in desperate bids to clean the air — but authorities have been slow to act, blaming the smog on India or claiming the figures are exaggerated.

Since coming into office, Prime Minister Imran Khan has organised meetings with brick kiln owners and won a two-month winter shutdown of factories in 12 districts, including Lahore.

The government has also pushed brick kiln owners to shift to cleaner technology, offering loans to make the switch, as well as issuing fines for kilns that operate using the dirtiest technologies, such as burning used tires.

The Environment Protection Department has fined farmers who burn crop stubble — a traditional practice — and is looking at promoting zero tillage farming as an alternative, though making the switch will be costly for farmers, Malik Amin Aslam, the prime minister’s climate change advisor, admitted.

As well, the government is considering setting higher emissions standards for vehicles — but warned the switch could make petrol “more expensive for consumers as a result”, he said.

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