- The 25.6km track, which is being constructed on the left side of Kashmir Highway, would require the cutting of nearly 960 trees, mostly <em>shisham</em>, destroying the habitat of wild species like jackals, wild boars and cuckoos.
- A total of 80 million litres of water will be consumed for the project in a city which is already water-scarce.
“Is this what you call a public hearing, held in a 5 star hotel? These projects are for the betterment of the public but this is not even a public place!” accused one of the stakeholders and member of an NGO.
I was attending a public hearing for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that had been readied for the latest metro bus project connecting the Federal capital with the New Islamabad International Airport.
The new airport is to be inaugurated on 14th August this year, hence the government is in a rush to have the new Rs18 billion metro bus operational in time for the airport's opening.
Pakistan has decent laws but the country suffers from weak implementation of these laws, and this certainly holds true for the rather comprehensive Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (PEPA), which was passed back in 1997.
PEPA mandates EIA reports for mega projects that are likely to cause adverse effects on the environment. Part of the assessment involves holding public hearings to determine how a mega project will influence the lives of all those affected.
Under the act, those implementing a large project have to file an EIA before commencing construction. It is the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) which then gives the go-ahead for a project to begin.
I was at the hearing to learn about the impact the construction of the new metro bus route would have on the adjoining residential areas of the Kashmir Highway (from Peshawar Mor to the new airport) and the flora and fauna of the area.
The 25.6km track, which is being constructed on the left side of Kashmir Highway, would require the cutting of nearly 960 trees, mostly shisham, destroying the habitat of wild species like jackals, wild boars and cuckoos.
Despite a clear need to have rigorous EIAs and their implementation, the mechanism has yet to be developed properly in Pakistan due to weak monitoring and resource constraints.
EIAs are rarely integrated into decision-making and are treated more like legal rubber-stamps, a nuisance to be done with in order to complete a mega project. Often they are not even completed before a project starts!
Take for example the earlier metro bus project from Rawalpindi to Peshawar Mor in Islamabad, which completely violated the PEPA by conducting public hearings after the project was already in progress.
Around 600 old trees and 4,000 smaller trees and shrubs were cut down during the construction of the project, which went ahead in the capital despite protests from civil society.
Also, more recently, there was the case of the expansion of the Islamabad Highway from Zero Point to Rawat, widening it to five lanes on each side.
In the process, around 300 fully-grown trees were cut down. In fact, the bulldozers ironically arrived while the EIA was being discussed, conducted by the National Engineering Services Pakistan. Trees almost 30 to 40 years old were uprooted overnight.
Environmentalists concerned about Islamabad’s rapidly disappearing greenery point out that the green belts that were mowed down for these projects are yet to be replanted with trees and that there are still no pathways for pedestrians and the handicapped. They lament the rise in temperature due to rapid defoliation, in a capital renowned for its greenery.
The metro bus bus project is a favourite of the ruling party and it continues to be pushed ahead with clear disregard to the environment and concerns of those affected.
Mome Saleem, an environmentalist who attended the public hearing expressed that, although she is not opposed to public transport, she could not understand why the existing highway lanes could not have been used by the metro buses.
Why was taxpayer money being used for unnecessary expansion when there is a wide road that could have served just as well as a bus lane?
More importantly, money could have been saved, with only less than a quarter being required out of the amount currently allocated, had the expansion not taken place.
The major accusation at the hearing I attended was that the National Highway Authority (NHA) – which is the executing agency – and its contractors, had already begun construction work on the track back in April this year without the required approval.
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However, the Director General of the Pak-EPA, Farzana Altaf Shah, in charge of the public hearing, clarified that the approval to widen the Kashmir Highway had already been issued after an EIA was presented in 2009 and environmental clearance for the new airport was granted.
She explained that this public hearing was called only after the NHA changed the design of the new lanes, around 7km from Peshawar Mor near NUST University, hence the need to assess the environmental damage from the new changes in design, with a fresh EIA.
The hearing, which was crowded with officials from the NHA, was clearly not going the way that officialdom had wanted.
“You can’t start a project without an EIA and you have already cut half the jungle in the area!” came the accusations from the residents of sector G-13 who had shown up in full force at the hearing. “You have blocked access to our sector and we have severe water shortages in our homes now,” they continued. “You can’t imagine our suffering. You have not followed procedure”.
A total of 80 million litres of water will be consumed for the project in a city which is already water-scarce.
Asim Amin, General Manager Design from the NHA, took the mike that was being passed around the table and tried to calm the tempers. “Think positively; this is a good project. The airport will need public transport connected to it as all airports around the world are connected with public transport systems. We will replace the cut trees with new plantation like we have on the Motorway. The project has not started; there is no asphalt on roads. We are still working on mobilisation and land acquisition,” he assured.
The voices opposing the project were becoming shrill as it was noted that many trees had been cut already and residents affected even before the EIA approval.
This public hearing, I was told later, was unique in that there was active participation by civil society and the affected residents. However, the fact remains that the EIA had clearly not been initiated at the earlier stages of the project.
What we need is a vigilant review and monitoring of each EIA through active participation by civil society.
I left the public hearing with the sombre thought of this being just the beginning – under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, we will soon have hundreds of new roads and highways to construct all over the country.
To prevent Pakistan’s mushrooming cities and towns from turning into concrete jungles, we the citizens need to become more involved and raise our concerns so that our advice is taken long before mega infrastructure projects begin development.
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