If the first two public hearings on environment were about bringing environmental issues to the fore, the third public hearing was all about compliance and response to those issues. Perhaps this is why the public hearing went off the mark with a presentation of the Environmental Protection Action Plan, prepared by the Cabinet Climate Change Division; a plan that the Convener, Senator Mushahid Hussain, had insisted on since the first public hearing.
The Action Plan evoked a mixed response; while there was comfort in knowing that the first step towards progress had now been taken, there was also apprehension on two counts: Is it too late? If not, then will Pakistan now make it in time?
That environmental protection is now of utmost significance is irrefutable; “environmental issue is the one of the most important issues, facing Pakistan and other countries, which will determine the very survivability of our populations,” the Convener pointed out. Hence, what is really the action plan for it? The Cabinet Division explained it to be “adaptation” and “mitigation”.
Rising global temperatures cannot be reversed; melting glaciers cannot be refrozen: the only solution, the Action Plan averred, is to adapt to all those changes that cannot be mitigated. Given the high rate of glacier melting in the Northern areas of Pakistan, capacity building, with new water reservoirs and dams, is the need of the hour. The catch in adaptation measures is that these are time bound; if water management is not taken up on an emergency basis, the main river, the Indus River, will dry up as the glaciers shrink, plunging this already semi-arid country into an arid/drought stricken land. On the other side of the coin were recommended measures like developing drought resistant seeds and reduction of waterlog crops, e.g. sugarcane.
Additionally, there are certain mitigation efforts that can be adopted to control the damage. Mr. Sikander Afridi, an industrialist, proposed introduction of plastic bags made of polypropylene, which are biodegradable, i.e., they will burn themselves out harmlessly in sunrays, instead of being non-decomposable and thus, clogging drains and dotting all free spaces.
In the face of such grave concerns and the need for a serious policy response, there needs be an independent and autonomous ministry for Climate Change. Historically, it seems that climate and environment have not been very popular words in the government quarters; the former ministry changed hands and names frequently until finally dwindling in to non-existence. Thus, the Convener urged for the restoration of the Ministry of Climate Change; “the powers and scope of this subcommittee is limited which, by law, will dissolve within two months in any case,” Senator Mushahid Hussain argued, “Thus, a Ministry, which can urgently address and respond to these issues, must be reconstituted as the top priority.”
Which other institution can take up the baton of environmental protection and ensure that apt measures are taken in time, all the while keeping a well-informed and well-aware public? The media, of course, with its instant reach to the masses; but first there is a need to educate the media persons about the critical nature of the issue, i.e., why should they be concerned about the environment? In this vein, the Convener directed a workshop for journalists, on March 10, 2014, that will in layman terms apprise them of the emerging challenges and their implications; a brochure of the same, in both English and Urdu, was also commissioned and will be handed out at the workshop.
While taking the compliance report on the stone crushers of Margalla Hills, the committee learnt, to its great astonishment, that 5 such stone crushers continue to operate; “the Supreme Court Order of 25th October 2013 must be implemented in totality and thus all stone crushers, be it government run or private, are operating in contempt of court and in violation of the law,” the convener was heard saying.
During the discussion, it came up that the ICT was responsible for the shutdown of the stone crushers to which Senator Farhatullah Babar recommended to the Convener to order a written explanation on the action taken by the body and it must brief the committee in its next hearing. While the CDA explained that notifications had been issued to these operators while cases have been filed in the various courts of law; in this effort, the CDA has joined hands with the ICT and Punjab Government to launch a joint operation against these stone crushers which cut off their electricity as the first step. The news received a good dose of appreciation.
The Green and Clean Campaign seems to be gaining pace with several notable developments that are easily the firsts in Pakistan. The CDA will be holding a ceremony to raise awareness on keeping the capital green and clean on February 27, 2014; this is first in the series of events aimed at fostering awareness, after which the public will be penalized and fined for environmental violations.
Another development has been the 24 hour environment hotline which was announced in the last public hearing. The public can return the favour by also reporting complaints and violations to CDA; the latter has been kept busy with 115 reports received within the span of only two weeks about garbage piles, debris and dog shooting among others. The CDA notified the committee that 113 complaints were duly addressed within the allotted time of 24 hours. The concerned citizens present at the hearing raised concerns about lack of garbage cans and clearance of vegetation in many of the city; these were noted down by the CDA for further action.
The Islamabad Traffic Police also reported on vehicle smoke emission and noise pollution, informing the committee that over four thousand vehicles were issued challans on these counts in 2013 while around one thousand vehicles have already been fined in the first two months of 2014. It also came to light that motor vehicle detection support from the Climate Change Division has been withdrawn due to funds constraints in 2013 to which the Convener stated that it must be included in the 2014 budget.
In sum, the cause of environment is gaining a much needed momentum and support; the developments may be restricted to one city of Pakistan, however, it is a fervent hope that a successful implementation can create a bigger picture as well as a prototype for the whole country. As the convener quoted, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Talking green in the parliament house is surely a great start.
(June 24, 2016)