The Environmental Apartheid
The 5 star Serena Islamabad, best known for its cost and exclusivity was the venue for holding a one day seminar (one lunch and many teas thrown in) on March 22, 2010 on the subject of ‘National Drinking Water Policy’. The Ministry of Environment endlessly explaining shortage of funds as the reason for its utter helplessness had no hesitation in conducting this expensive public relations exercise, just because the UNICEF was dishing out the dough. Ironically a similar funding-driven exercise in 2005 had declared availability of clean drinking water for all Pakistanis by 2007. When no such thing happened even by 2009, a new declaration was made by the government that the promised clean drinking water would now be available to all Pakistanis by 2025. This and other similar issues are likely to keep receiving distant promises as long as they are debated at donor-funded seminars in ‘Serene’ environments by mineral water-drinking bureaucrats who have little understanding, skill or inclination to find solutions to such complex problems.
It is now universally accepted that all citizens have an equal right to clean air, water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic qualities of their environment. In Pakistan this right of ordinary citizens has been usurped by a mafia of ‘environmental terrorists’. These are a few thousand well-connected, rich, powerful and insensitive people conspicuous by their large houses, large vehicles, large ecological footprints and large egos. The land and water area required to regenerate what they consume as well as to absorb the waste that they produce is just about 10 times more than that of an average citizen. In its resource consumption and waste generation, this class of Pakistani ‘environment destroyers’ could well compete with an average American who produces 760 kg of waste per year.
The Ministry of Environment is responsible for the protection and preservation of environment. The lawless privileged elite of Pakistan has however discovered many mutually supportive ways to trample these regulations. Plot by plot, the beautiful and scenic spots of Nathia Galli, Doonga Galli and the other ‘Galliat’ of our northern mountains are being divided and allotted to the friends and families of the rich, powerful and connected people of Pakistan. Every year some more of the finest spots, which are in fact public property (and the property of the future generations), are forever snatched away and given to one of these “environmental terrorists”. These are invariably the well placed bureaucrats, generals, politicians, ambassadors and ministers who manage to (much like the prohibited gun licenses and other privileges ) get these plots allotted to themselves. The former MMA Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani, using his own discretionary powers allotted a large plot to himself at Doonga Galli. He now has a palatial house built on this plot, taking away for all times, a beautiful piece of natural forest from the ordinary people and the future generations. An even better portion is now owned by Hamza Sharif. For each such home, special roads are built to provide easy vehicular access, thus adding to the noise pollution and further destroying the forest and the natural scenery. The places where ordinary citizens could visit are rapidly shrinking and being replaced by the residences of the privileged. This legalized environmental segregation is a form of environmental apartheid that needs to be stopped and reversed.
The right to walk and the right to cycle – the two rather ancient rights always enjoyed by the ordinary people have now been taken away by the vehicle owning inconsiderate urban militants. They make sure that of the 90 billion rupees being spent on the development of Karachi, not a single penny is spent for developing walking tracks or cyclist paths. It must all go into a cobweb of underpasses, over heads and signal-free corridors – a development model tilted in favour of polluting gas guzzlers instead of Eco-friendly cyclists.
More than 80% factories of Pakistan do not treat their effluents nor scrub the environmentally damaging carbon, sulphur and nitrogen laden gases. Less than 10 percent hospitals treat their hazardous biological waste. Others simply pop it across the road. While the Ministry remains busy in its foreign funded seminars, the people of Pakistan suffer the destruction of their land, air and water resources by the criminal negligence of a small group of irresponsible and callous individuals. The environmental rights of ordinary citizens are also denied when the corrupt political groups and the tanker mafia siphon off as much as 40% of Karachi’s water supply and sell it at exorbitant rates to residents, generating an estimated 300 crore rupees every year. Even the animals and the rare species are not spared. The same eco-enemy mafia that distributes all the weapon licenses between itself and its cronies, also manages to obtain hunting licenses to deprive the ordinary citizens of another environmental resource that belongs to them and their future generations.
It is the responsibility of the state and its institutions to protect the environmental rights of the ordinary people. The misuse and distribution of precious environmental resources amongst a small minority of powerful influential class must be stopped. It is time to put an end to this environmental apartheid and declare all elements of environment a common heritage, equally accessible to all citizens of Pakistan.
Dawn March 2010