Who hasn’t heard that old cliché about how Indians and Pakistanis have so much in common – food, language, music. Drive down from Lahore to Amritsar and the transition is seamless – yes there are more women visible on our side, but the people look the same; even the fields are the same, just replace the mosques with the gurudwaras. They grow mustard, we grow mustard; they grow wheat, we grow wheat; they grow kinos, we grow kinos. We grow paddy, they also grow paddy. And this is where the cliché is no longer cute.
In October and November, we have smog, they have smog; they have accidents, we have accidents; they have respiratory diseases, we also have respiratory diseases. And while they have their own crop stubble burners, they allege we are sending the smog over to Lahore. Only a meteorologist would know if wind systems in the region for this time of the year take smoke from our side to the west, or east to Delhi, or in both directions.
But there is no getting away from the fact that there are more paddy fires in Punjab and Haryana, than in Pakistan’s Punjab. Check the satellite images captured by NASA in the first 10 days of November, and the red thermal dots on the Indian side of the border are like a large splotch of blood, compared to the tiny dots here and there on the other side.
Pakistani media reports have pointed to other sources of pollution in Pakistan’s Punjab province – their own incidents of crop burning, vehicular traffic, industry, and a coal-fired thermal plant in Sahiwal. But that does not quite explain the thickness of the smog in Lahore at this time of the year.
Whatever the sources, the shared misery of a thick blanket of suspended particulate matter tinier than 2.5 microns over cities, towns and villages on both sides has rightly prompted the question if Pakistan and India shouldn’t be talking urgently about how to tackle this.
The Punjab government in Pakistan – or at least someone who administers its Twitter handle — took the lead on this and tweeted to Punjab chief Minister Amarinder Singh in India: “Environmental hazards threaten our people and habitat. Let us act fast to counter it”.
So far, Amarinder has not responded to that tweet. Very simply, the two countries are still far from the point where they understand the gravity of the ecological and environmental challenges that they jointly face.
There have been situations in the past in which advanced concerns over environment and climate have been advanced as a possible meeting ground for the two countries, with potential to erode all hostilities. But it has always remained in the realm of wishful thinking.
The first time that the two countries contemplated co-operation on this front was in the opening decade of this century, when environmentalists and strategic thinkers from both sides bounced off a proposal to turn Siachen into a “peace park”, that would help to protect and conserve the glacier. Climate change is thought to be melting glaciers around the world, and the movement of men and material on the highest battlefield, which also happens to the only non-polar glacier in the world, can only be aggravating this.
The idea for the “peace park” gained traction, and for a while, there was a real possibility that Siachen would become a symbol of co-operation between two hostile neighbours, for the sake of the greater good. But mutual distrust and suspicion ensured that the matter did not move forward. All that was left was to joke about how India and Pakistan had secretly decided that the Siachen glacier should melt away so that there was one less thing to fight over.
In Kashmir, environment activists on either side of the Line of Control have voiced concern at the rapid environmental degradation and the threats this poses to water and food security of the people in the region. There is a felt need for the two sides to join hands in a co-operative effort to conserve the Indus water basin, and the Himalayan eco-system for cross-border good.
Shakil A. Romshoo of Kashmir University, a climatologist and ecological engineer, has written extensively on the ecological threats India and Pakistan can no longer afford to ignore, especially in the Kashmir region.
In a report for the think tank Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, Romshoo has detailed the many ecological challenges the two countries face, and the strategies to meet them. He wrote about climate change and its impact on water resources, including water scarcity, flooding, excessive dependence on ground water, the cumulative impact of hydropower projects in the upper Indus basin. He made a passionate call for data sharing and more co-operation between academica and the scientific communities on both sides for better management of resources and avoidance of environmental disasters, both man-made and natural.
But joint action of the kind Romshoo and others have spoken about first demands an acknowledgement of the problem, and not just in speeches at the UN. The smog crisis in north India has highlighted that there is a reluctance to accept there is a problem and the causes for it, possibly for fear that this immediately implies accepting blame.
The last few days have seen the chief ministers of Delhi, Haryana and Punjab squabble about who caused the bad air over Delhi, while people choke on the smoke, and get killed in zero visibility on the highways.
Amarinder’s silence to the tweet sent out to him by the Pakistan Punjab government last Wednesday is thus not surprising. Our leaderships make pious statements about co-operating to resolve the “real issues” that face the people of the two countries, but in reality, are more comfortable wearing the armour of old hostilities.
The irony is that challenges to food, water and clean air security are not as intractable as, for instance, those over territory. So while it is uncontestable that the two countries should be talking about how to deal with it and how to prevent it, the toxic smog from Lahore to Delhi is in fact quite an apt metaphor for all our enmities, and our combined failure to overcome our differences of the last seven decades, to the extent that it is clouding our vision of the future.
Had Saadat Hasan Manto been alive, there would have been a short story by now on how India and Pakistan had agreed to exchange smog as a confidence-building measure.