Though Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s decision to establish new city projects near densely populated urban centres in the province is a positive move, it is not without environmental costs.
New mega city projects, one each in close proximity to Peshawar and Swabi, are being opposed by farmers, as they fear thousands of acres of agricultural lands would be eaten up by the planned urban dwellings.
While the KP government dismisses the impression that cultivable land would be used for the housing projects, farmers in Peshawar, Nowshera, and Swabi districts have recently held protest demonstrations in the provincial capital and at district headquarters to voice their persisting concerns.
The two political parties are also supporting the agitating farmers. The opposition Quami Wattan Party and Awami National Party have already spoken their mind against the proposed housing scheme in Swabi. The resistance movement and its vigour would become clearer once the official plans enter the execution phase in the months to come.
Nonetheless, these projects are certainly a pressing need to cater to the rising housing requirements across the province in general and the central KP in particular, which also happens to be, food basket for the province.
According to the provincial housing department’s estimates, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa needs 1.17 million houses whereas the demand for new houses is growing at a rate as high as 120,000 houses per annum.
From some of the recent official statements, the government also seems to be conscious of not setting up new cities at the cost of agriculture.
In the case of the ‘mega city project’ near Peshawar, the government holds the position that the 14,000 acres, between Peshawar and Nowshera, that would be acquired for the new city, are barren/uncultivable.
However, small growers from Nowshera, who are expected to lose their land to the project, reject the government’s stance.
There is a fine thin line on which the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf led provincial government has to walk to pursue its two popular election manifesto goals: conservation of environment and setting up new cities.
The construction of thousands of new houses would also generate investment, economic activities, creating jobs, self employment.
However, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a food deficient province. It meets its wheat consumption mainly by procuring the commodity from Punjab and Sindh. Its own annual wheat production caters only one third of the over 3m tonnes of wheat consumed in KP.
As the farmers’ agitation is unlikely to subside, the provincial government may have to engage with the local communities who fear losing land to the housing projects.
The government’s project executing agencies are expected to conduct IEAs in the case of each housing projects. Such studies are conducted for constructing medium-to-large water reservoirs and highways.
Under the proposed KP Environmental Protection Act, the concept of ‘strategic environmental assessment’ can be more effectively implemented.
At present every major development project requires to have EIA conducted before being launched.
Currently, the province has been experiencing a mushroom growth of private housing societies requiring effective rules to check environmental deterioration.
New housing societies have resulted into unabated loss of agriculture land in Peshawar, Nowshera, Mardan, Swabi, Swat, and Charsadda.
It is time to revisit the under execution projects and the future housing schemes (public and private) after conducting the strategic environmental assessment at the provincial government level.
The issue needs immediate attention as the civic bodies responsible to check compliance of official rules by firms constructing housing projects need some umbrella official policy to regulate the sector, protecting environment and agriculture land side by side while ensuring construction standards.