NEW DELHI — Three Pakistani teenagers are the latest members of Gen Z to try to save the world, taking their government to court over dangerous levels of air pollution that blankets the country every year.
Mishael Hyat, 17, Leila Alam, 13, and Laiba Siddiqi, 18, have accused the government of Punjab of violating their right to life and health by underreporting the severity of Lahore’s polluted air. The teenagers filed a petition with the Lahore High Court on Tuesday with their complaints, aided by Alam’s father, Ahmad Rafay Alam, who’s serving as their lawyer.
Rafay told BuzzFeed News that he realized the pollution emergency Pakistanis were facing when he watched a video on Facebook, in which an interviewer went to a classroom in Lahore and asked any children who were sick to raise their hands.
“It was heartbreaking. More than 90% of them were sick and had a family member that was ill because of the air too,” he said. (He was unable to relocate the video to share it with BuzzFeed News.)
The air pollution emergency in Pakistan and India has become an annual event that lasts from October to January, owing in part to the burning of stubble crop by farmers in the North Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, and Pakistan’s general industrial, agricultural, and transportation practices. Warmer temperatures as a result of climate change mean that the smog hovers over this region, growing and stagnating.
The situation has led to New Delhi declaring a public health emergency — schools were closed and planes were unable to land because of the pollution. Exposure to one specific type of pollution — a fine, deadly bit of matter suspended in the air, known as PM 2.5 — accounts for 1.24 million deaths in India annually, and increases the chances of contracting heart and lung diseases. Evidence suggests that pollution also leads to stunted brain development in children.
The petition includes a report from Lahore’s Children’s Hospital, which states that the medical center has seen a threefold increase in admissions presenting chest or cardiovascular complaints in the past decade.
The three teenagers’ petition names and targets several government agencies in charge of monitoring air quality, such as the Punjab Environmental Protection Council, the Punjab Safe Cities Authority, the Environment Protection Department of Punjab, and the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency.
According to the teenagers, the classification of air used by Lahore’s government to measure how bad the city’s air is (known as its air quality index or AQI), is at odds with the classification used by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Air quality that is classified as “severe” by the US EPA only shows up as “moderate” on the Lahore government’s website. The petition claims that the website — which is supposed to monitor air quality data and warn citizens when it is dangerous to go out of the house — underreports the severity of air pollution, therefore exposing people to unacceptable levels of risk. The government data also fails to mention the different types of pollutants present in the air.
Hyat, a competitive athlete and swimmer who represented Pakistan in the South Asian Games in 2016 and is getting ready to compete in the games once more this year. She told BuzzFeed News that her ability to train was severely impacted by Lahore’s air.
“To swim better, we have to increase our lung capacity. So I’m supposed to run and cycle every day, and that has been virtually impossible of late,” Hyat said. “And the more I exert myself in the current levels of pollution, the more susceptible I become to respiratory illness. It’s a terrible situation for athletes — children and old people in particular.”
Hyat, who spoke to BuzzFeed News over the phone from Lahore, said she had always been involved with environmental activism. “I met Leila at the climate change march in Lahore last month. Given that this situation repeats itself in Pakistan every winter, we realized that we had to do something to change it,” she said.
In the petition, Alam has said the government’s misreporting of data has meant that she does not know when she needs to wear a mask outdoors.
Siddiqi was part of the organizing team for the worldwide climate strike last month, in which young people walked out of schools and offices in 3,600 different locations to call attention to the climate emergency. The movement began with 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who began striking alone every Friday in August last year outside of the Swedish Parliament building in Stockholm to call attention to climate change. In the year since, the movement has spurred hundreds to thousands of kids to strike regularly.
Siddiqi is from Karachi and studies at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “Karachi is pretty densely polluted too, but I’ve developed a chronic cough since I came to Lahore — and I haven’t even seen the worst of the smog season yet,” she said. “I also know about other people, especially those with asthma, who have really been struggling.”
“Once the march was over, we started thinking of ways to maintain the momentum,” Siddiqi told BuzzFeed News over WhatsApp. “We realised that, apart from just grassroots awareness efforts, we wanted to actually engage in lobbying or pushing for legislative reform.”
Hyat said: “We’re looking for the court to act quickly and decisively. This cannot go on in the long run. Our futures are at stake.”