LAHORE: The unfettered cement industry in Punjab is once again being brought under the regulatory control of the provincial government after 29 years, allowing it to function and expand under a strictly monitored legal and administrative regime.

The decision to once again regulate the cement industry was taken during a marathon meeting of a committee which was presided over by Chief Secretary Zahid Saeed two days ago at the Civil Secretariat. Five provincial ministers, several administrative secretaries of the departments concerned and MPAs from the Salt Range attended the meeting during which every aspect of the regulatory regime was discussed threadbare.

Cement industry was taken out of the provincial government’s schedule of regulation in 1989. And government officials and a study conducted recently by foreign experts say the carte blanche given to the industry led to serious environmental and agriculture issues and depletion of underground water resources in the Salt Range where it is mainly concentrated.

Even the pond of the ancient Katas Raj Temples has been dried up because of the merciless extraction of groundwater by the cement factories. There have been protests by people of the Salt Range against the negative impact of the cement industry they are facing over the years.

The Punjab government has been working on how to regulate the cement industry due to the environmental concerns and protests by people since 2016. But it has been able to devise a strict regulation for the cement industry only because of the support of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the Lahore High Court which took up the issue recently.

The major support from the courts had been the vacation of all stay orders given to the cement industry by the judiciary. The decisions on how to control the cement industry have been taken in consultation with various departments but the chief minister had given the lead role to the mines and minerals department.

Senior officials informed Dawn on Sunday that as per the decision of the wide-ranging committee, the cement industry would primarily be regulated by the provincial industries department. But it would be the responsibility of the environment department to approve the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of all the cement factories and give a mitigation strategy to them.

The mines and minerals department would permit usage of raw material for cement in the shape of mining leases, and ensure that the mined out areas are reclaimed and rehabilitated.

The cement factories would not be allowed to get new area for quarrying without the full reclamation of the previous area damaged while obtaining raw material for cement. They would first level the mines area and grow vegetation on it otherwise they would not be allowed to operate, making the entire process an industrial obligation for each one of them.

Officials said cement factories were mainly operating in four valleys of the Salt Range. They are Vinhar, Kahoon, Padhrar and Pail Padhrar which had been declared negative area for the sector. As per the decision, no new cement factory would be allowed there. The existing ones would have to shift their sustainable water resource to the banks of nearby rivers.

The cement plants which are the most dirty and troublesome would have to either upgrade or close down.

The remaining areas of the Salt Range would be declared conditionally positive for cement factories for they would not be allowed to touch forest or agriculture land, disturb underground water table or destroy communication network, making it obligatory for them to keep environment clean and people happy. They would be permitted to function only in case of the availability of sufficient raw material and sustainable water resource for at least 30 years.

Sources said that the new policy to regulate cement industry had been finalised in the light of a technical report prepared by a foreign consultant company and in consultation with the departments concerned.

The final version would be submitted to the chief minister for his and his cabinet’s approval in a week. Afterwards it would be submitted to the Supreme Court of Pakistan hearing a case on the issue.

They said that it was for first time the Punjab government had conducted technical audit of the private sector industry in the province from its own resources to address environmental, social and public concerns.

But the regulatory regime had been devised while giving due consideration to the fact that it should not suffocate industry, studying first the best regulatory practices in the world. The foreign consultant company in its 1,000-page report had recommended immediate control over the cement industry with the help of all departments concerned.

The regulatory framework would mean introduction of a legal framework of the departments concerned or an improvement in the existing one if any of the departments has any. For example, there could be water quota for tubewells and this exercise could also lead to development of regional master planning for determining industrial zones.

This regime would also lead to developing monitoring mechanism for different kinds of other industry like leather and chemical, segregating the good from the bad.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2018