KARACHI: The Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) has granted approval to the controversial Malir Expressway project — the multi-billion rupee venture already under construction for over a year now — without taking into account genuine concerns of area residents and experts over the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, it emerged on Sunday.
The affected residents and experts term the EIA approval by Sepa nothing but a mockery of the Sindh Environmental Protection Act 2014, as its Section 17 (1) reads: “No proponent of a project shall commence construction or operation unless he has filed with the Agency an IEE [initial environmental examination] or EIA, & has obtained from the agency approval in respect thereof.”
According to sources, work on the project was initiated soon after its inauguration by Pakistan Peoples Party chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in December 2020 and so far earth work on the 15-km-long portion right from Jam Sadiq Bridge to Quaidabad had been completed.
Developed under a public-private partnership, the project will link the city’s affluent areas with the newer gated societies emerging on the city’s outskirts.
It includes the development of 38.75 kilometres 3x3 lane expressway with controlled access along the Malir river starting from Korangi Creek Avenue (DHA) and ending at Karachi-Hyderabad Motorway (M-9) near Kathore via the existing Link Road.
Report doesn’t carry signature of Sepa chief; residents term approval mockery of environmental protection act
“Upon completion, the travelling time from Karachi-Hyderabad motorway, M-9, to KPT interchange on the main Korangi Road will be reduced to only 30 minutes,” says the project’ EIA report.
It claims the motorway will cause least environmental and social damages due to lesser travel distance and time and limited land acquisition and resettlement issues. It will also provide a natural bund (due to embankments) in the seasonal urban floods in heavy monsoon rains, it adds.
‘A recipe for disaster’
However, local residents look at the project planned on the right side of the Malir river as a recipe for disaster.
They think that it would lead to demolition of old villages, deprive people of their homes, agricultural land and destroy heritage and religious sites as well as biodiversity of the area, currently home to many several species of flora and fauna.
Some experts also fear that the project would ruin extensive fertile land in Malir, which is one of the few remaining green agricultural belts amid urban sprawl, providing fruits and vegetables and playing the role of the city’s oxygen hub.
They also apprehend that the project may increase the risk of urban flooding.
Disregard for people
Apart from its environmental significance, the district also attracts official attention, albeit only during the elections season. It’s one of the few areas that have remained a stronghold of the PPP for decades but has hardly seen any serious steps for human development and civic infrastructure.
“This public attitude to an extent provides insights into the party’s continued reign over the province as well as explains why the government completely ignored its constituents in this important initiative despite their demonstrations,” a local activist said on the condition of anonymity.
Local residents, he believed, had a good opportunity to get their reservations addressed ahead of by-elections on a provincial assembly seat held last year. But, they lost it.
Sources said one of the key problems with the project was that the government did not take the local population on board before and after its launch.
“There were no government assurances over the project. The majority of the local communities in Malir’s rural areas live in abject poverty with little or no education and are in no position to launch a movement against the project,” said activist Salman Baloch representing the Indigenous Rights Alliance (IRA).
Local communities lived on both sides of the Malir river and would be gravely affected by the project, he added.
People, the sources said, finally got an opportunity to be officially heard when Sepa organised a public hearing last month on March 9, almost over a year after the launch of the project’s construction. The event held in the absence of the director general aimed at getting people’s feedback on the venture’s EIA report.
The event saw strong opposition over the project to such an extent that Sepa officials decided to call off the hearing abruptly. In the same meeting, some attendees produced videos showing the project’s construction and a government official reportedly conceded that construction on the 15-km long strip of the project had been initiated without first getting approval from the environmental watchdog.
Lack of independent assessments
An important highlight of the hearing, the sources said, was submission of a comprehensive document containing reservations on the Malir Expressway to Sepa.
The document was signed by six organisations — Climate Action Pakistan, Green Pakistan Coalition, Pakistan Maholiati Tahaffuz Movement, Karachi Bachao Tehreek, Indigenous Rights Alliance and Women Development Front.
The document challenged the EIA report on multiple grounds and raised a long list of objections, two of which pertained to incorrect data on groundwater resources and ecological assets.
The report, according to the document, doesn’t include the project’s significance impact on the local population, information about heritage sites and fails to investigate alternate methods to achieve stated goals with minimum environmental and social impact.
It also says that some 210 permanent houses with 1,500 residents and 49 temporary structures would be demolished for the project, whereas 6,635 acres of private agricultural land would be acquired.
The sources said Sepa did not reply to these concerns, committing another violation of its law.
“All comments received under sub-sections (1) and (2) shall be duly considered by the Agency while reviewing the environmental impact assessment or strategic impact assessment, and decision or action taken thereon shall be communicated to the persons who have furnished the said comments,” says Sub-Section (3) of Section 31 of the Act.
The sources said the wide disparity in the EIA report and the document should have guided Sepa to engage other organisations in the EIA process.
Key concerns addressed, claims Sepa chief
When contacted, Sepa director general Naeem Ahmed Mughal claimed that the original alignment of the project had been modified and all major concerns to the project had been addressed after the public hearing.
“Now, the private land required for the project has been reduced from 130 to 140 acres to eight to 10 acres. Only eight to 10 houses would be affected and there is no library, historical or religious site located on its way.
“There are no trees on the way, only some wild vegetation, and there is no threat to wildlife species. Anyone who is affected will be compensated by the project proponent [Malir Expressway Limited],” he said, adding that he personally visited the whole site and found no evidence of any activity that could be described as construction work.
Asked about the document submitted to Sepa, he said the hearing’s purpose was to listen and record public response to the report and that was fulfilled.
“We have given approval subject to a long list of tough measures that the proponent needs to implement. Our department will be monitoring the work and withdraw the approval, if found any violations,” the chief of Sepa explained.
He said that the project being built on the bank of the Malir river didn’t pose flooding risk in monsoon. “It will, in fact, strengthen its embankments.”
The director general agreed with the suggestion that “people truly representing the communities should be taken on board on these developments”.
EIA approval not signed by DG
Asked about why the project’s approval is signed by the deputy director and not him, he said the entire process was under his supervision and there was nothing wrong in this action.
Contesting this argument, senior environmental lawyer Zubair Ahmed Abro said an official grant of approval was required to be signed by the director general.
In this respect, he cited the order of an environmental tribunal in the Seaview commercialisation case.
“The court clearly stated that approval is an appealable order and needs to be signed by the director general himself,” he said, describing deputy director’s sign on the approval as violation of the law.
The environmental watchdog, Mr Abro said, was also required under the law to set up advisory committees having representation from different sectors for evaluation of EIA reports.
The continued absence of these committees, he said, amounted to repeated violation of the Act that Sepa was supposed to implement.
“The Supreme Court has held that constituting advisory committees is a mandatory duty on the provincial government under the environmental law and failure to constitute the said committees would be a violation of a statutory duty and provide grounds for striking down an EIA,” he said.
The sources said it’s not the first time that Sepa had granted approval to an under-construction project and that the body needed a thorough professional review in order to make the whole EIA process credible.
Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2022