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Activists Pushing Back Over Air Pollution In Pakistan


The Pakistani city of Lahore has some of the world's worst air pollution. Amnesty International calls it a violation of the human rights of every resident of the city. For years, the government downplayed the extent of the problem. But now citizens are pushing back, including some so-called Scary Moms, as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: A teacher shushes girls walking into this class, so Ayesha Nasir can speak.

AYESHA NASIR: (Non-English language spoken), everyone. And thank you for coming out. Today, Lahore is the worst place to live in the world because of the air we're breathing. People are dying - just people like you and me.

HADID: Nasir's blunt. She lives up to her name.

NASIR: I am founder of a group called Scary Ammi.

HADID: Urdu for scary moms.

Why are you scary?

NASIR: OK, so if you were brought up by a Pakistani mom, you'd know that we're very scary.

HADID: The Scary Moms teach about air pollution as a part of an effort to get Lahore's thousands of private schools to mandate bussing. It's how they're chipping away at air pollution in Pakistan's second-largest city.


HADID: It's worse in winter. It mixes with the smog and shrouds Lahore. The U.N. says about 40% of it's caused by vehicles. Nasir says a lot of them are on the roads for the school run.

NASIR: There are schools in Lahore where, on average, 2,000 cars go there in the morning. Like, imagine.

HADID: Lahore's air has grown worse over the years because the city lost most of its tree cover.


HADID: And industries like kilns that make bricks add to the problem. We visited one - donkey carts decorated with bells, ferried bricks from an outdoor oven. Its chimney was pluming smoke. It dissolved into the haze around us. That day the air stank.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: It sent the Nadim family to the hospital with their baby, who was having trouble breathing. Successive governments long denied the extent of Lahore's air pollution, including the climate change minister, Zartaj Gul.


ZARTAJ GUL: Eighty percent of...

HADID: In a recent video, she insisted most of the pollution was blowing in from neighboring India. She denied that Lahore was heavily polluted. But private citizens, led by a Pakistani engineer - Abid Omar - tell a different story. They collect readings from privately owned air quality monitors and upload it onto Twitter.

ABID OMAR: Just a very simple act has this huge impact.

RAFAY ALAM: For the first time, people got numbers and realized how bad it was. And no surprise, Lahore is top of the list of the most polluted cities in the world.

HADID: Rafay Alam is an environmental lawyer who's using the new data to sue the government. Four Pakistani entrepreneurs, meantime, are building a solar-powered outdoor air filter. It's called a smog tower. I meet one of them - Maryam Saeed - outside.

Right and...

MARYAM SAEED: (Coughing). Really sorry about that.

HADID: That's OK. Have you been coughing for long?

SAEED: Yeah. It's been three months.

HADID: The air is rated as very unhealthy. But that's actually a good day in Lahore. Saeed removes her smog mask to sip her coffee. She says their smog tower should clean the air for about 90,000 residents around it.

SAEED: One small tower or even 10 small towers cannot solve the entire problem. This is just a short term - very short-term solution.


HADID: Another solution the Scary Moms are pushing is bussing at private schools. Parents on a school run say they like the idea, like Zahid Ali. He was dropping off his 8-year-old son on a motorbike.

ZAHID ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Ali says buses are a great idea. His kids have been sick from the smog all winter.

The court challenges and public pressure have led the government to promise action this year. An adviser to the prime minister - Malik Amin Aslam - says they'll start phasing out dirty fuel. Industries will purchase carbon-scrubbing technology. They're planting more trees.

MALIK AMIN ASLAM: This is a very serious issue that we have inherited in this government. I think the measures that we have taken will start having an effect. And I hope within the next two years, we should be moving in the right direction, at least.

HADID: But Alam the lawyer's concerned that the government will forget its promises when the smog lifts in the spring, even though the air will still be polluted.

ALAM: Once the season changes and you can't see the poor air quality anymore, out of sight, out of mind. And other political issues can sort of take over.

HADID: Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lahore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.