LAHORE: Officials from the Environment Protection Department condemned the way a pressure group of a kiln workers’ union had tried to ‘intimidate’ them at their head office in Lahore on Wednesday morning and said that their demands to keep the brick kilns open during smog season were ‘impractical’ and would end up being extremely harmful to the environment.

Brick kiln workers had held a protest a week ago, raising cries against the ban on functioning of kilns during the winter months and said this would cost them their employment as no kiln owner would pay them anything.

Spokesperson for EPD Sajid Bashir said that on Wednesday morning, a group of around 200 angry protestors led by some people came and stood outside the EPD office at first, and began chanting slogans to reopen brick kilns. “Afterwards these people stormed inside and threatened us that they would not let us work, unless we gave a notification to open bhattas again,” he told Dawn.

“They dispersed only after we called the police, but they did say that they would carry their protest outside the CM Secretariat.”

Bashir said that there was a faction within the brick kiln unions which supported the closure of the kilns, while the other group did not.

“They have been causing problems since the first day even though this is the step in the right direction,” he said. “They also do not understand that even if this step had to be reversed it is not in our (EPD’s) hands. It will be based on a court order and we as EPD are working to implement a court order as well.”

But Bhatta Mazdoor Ittehad member Manzoor Hussain Wattoo said that on Tuesday their senior leaders met CM Usman Buzdar who assured them of support.

Union leaders and other representatives of mine workers and brick kiln workers went to see the CM and spoke in a video address standing in the CM Secretariat.

“The CM has assured us in the presence of the Secretaries and Directors General of both departments of mines and minerals, as well as environment protection, that the mines will be opened according to zone system and said that no specific technology has been imposed upon anyone, but anything that is environment friendly can be used by brick kiln owners,” said the representative.

“They also said they would try to minimise the days during which the ban is imposed on functioning of kilns and mines.” He said that the CM had said he would not allow any sector to be damaged in any way.

Bashir said that this would only benefit the environment in a positive way and that the union should not demand for such things when public health was at risk.

CROP BURNING CONTINUES

Meanwhile, crop burning continues unabated in many areas of Punjab as the rice crops are being harvested. Dawn has received some pictures from areas including Sial off the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway showing stubble burning, while yet another incident was reported near the Narowal-Muridke Road (off Lahore Sialkot Motorway).

Farmer Aamer Hayat Bhandara says that even more burning may be expected because the Basmati variety of rice has not yet been fully harvested. “Harvesting will probably continue till December so it is expected more stubble will burn,” he says.

“This is despite the government handing out some machines including Happy Seeder and a rice chopper but the problem is the areas where these have been launched only use land for wheat-rice crops. The land where any other crops including vegetables are grown after rice is harvested are still facing the issue of stubble. So until the government gives an incentive or alternative to these farmers, not much can be changed.”

Bhandara also adds that this burning has been happening since decades, but stresses that crop stubble burning is not the major contributor to smog.

“Why is the farming community being targeted like this when it’s not even the biggest problem around?” he questions.

While Basmati is grown across Punjab, places where the locally made machines have been launched include Gujranwala, Gujrat, Sialkot, Mandi Bahauddin, Narowal, Hafizabad, Lahore, Kasur, Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib, Faisalabd, Chiniot, Jhang and Bahawalnagar.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2020