By Q Isa Daudpota
Our leaders and their planning
aides invariably suffer from the same mental aberration.
It manifests itself in the irresistible desire to
promote large projects that ostensibly bring 'glory'
to the 'nation'. Of course such mega-projects often
become a way to siphon off significant sums into
the pockets of power brokers and puppeteers who
control the state.
With Gulf money now under stringent watch in the
western capitals, petro-dollars have flowed east,
with Pakistan a keen beneficiary. A former banker
of Arab leaders being the head of government in
Pakistan has boosted confidence in investments here.
Funds are funneled mainly into the service and construction
sectors. Banks, overflowing with liquidity, pay
paltry interest to small depositors and make huge
profits that translate into bonuses for their upwardly
mobile managers and into high-interest, short-term
loans for expensive consumer items such as cars.
Instead of investing in public transport and affordable
housing that would benefit the masses, funds are
diverted to build new highways, carved into dwindling
green areas, and into construction of luxury hotels
for the affluent. While public hospitals make do
without good doctors and poor health care, private
hospitals are padded-up for national and foreign
In all this new 'development' the rich and powerful
get their financial wizards to reassure the masses
that 'prosperity' for the well-to-do will soon enough
trickle down to the lower sections. However, sixty
years of cajoling and fudging the figures can't
dupe the masses any more. Despite their awareness,
the public and the NGOs have failed to persist and
squash or trim down such imprudent plans. Had our
courts been proactive and sided with sustainable
development these foolhardy ventures would not have
received the green signal. The recent stand of the
lawyers and the Supreme Court chief justice has,
however, encouraged the hope that the law can be
used to modify or scrap such misguided plans.
In 1989 the World Bank adopted the Environmental
Impact Assessment (EIA) for all major development
projects. EIAs are now mandatory in Pakistan and
their implementation is overseen by the Pakistan
Environmental Protection Agency (PEPA, 1977). All
development projects that can potentially disturb
the environment are required by the PEPA to undergo
a vigorous EIA.
EIA compares the various alternatives for the project
and seeks to identify the one which represents the
best combination of economic and environmental costs
and benefits. It proposes measures to mitigate immediate
and projected adverse environmental effects of projects.
By considering the environmental effects early in
the project planning cycle there is an optimal use
of resources and saving of time and cost. Moreover,
properly conducted EIA lessens conflicts through
promoting community participation.
In an 80-page World Bank report, titled "Pakistan
Strategic Country Environmental Assessment",
of Aug 2006, available on the Internet, the current
state of the environmental oversight has been assessed
and recommendations have been provided for improvement.
The World Bank report focuses on the concerns in
the context of growth and urbanization. The measured
tone of the report does not hide the very serious
environmental problems that the country faces. The
most devastating statistics is that environmental
degradation is equivalent to 6 per cent of GDP,
or about Rs365 billion per year. Given that GDP
growth per capita in 2005 was 5.2 per cent, this
is wiped out by the environmental damage we are
Despite legislation such as the National Environment
Policy (2005) and the conservation strategies of
the 1990s, the poorly designed bodies of the government
- PEPA and the ministry of environment and municipalities
- have failed to ensure proper EIA implementation.
The PEPA informed the World Bank that the number
of EIAs filed in 2000 was 37, which rose to 87 in
2004. This is pitifully low compared with Bangladesh,
with a smaller economy but roughly the same industrialization,
which had more than 1300 EIAs in 2001.
The key problem with EIAs is that they are grossly
inadequate, and this is not limited to Pakistan.
In the Brazilian Amazon, environmental impact assessments
have allowed the biggest expansion of highways through
the heart of the rainforest increasing the threat
of illegal logging, mining and land colonization.
How did that happen? The EIAs for these highways
only evaluated direct effect of the narrow strip
of land cleared for each road. None of the alarming
indirect impacts that commonly follow road construction
Examples abound of laughably superficial EIAs merely
done to fulfill a paper requirement so that the
developer can get on with the business of construction
as soon as possible. The proponent of the project,
who pushes for securing approval with minimum cost,
pays the EIA firm for its service. In such a flawed
system, environmental firms that get projects accepted
with just a few mitigation measures are in high
demand, while those with reputation for a more rigorous
method are avoided. In Pakistan there is no clear
certification by a national body that also oversees
the performance of EIA companies.
PEPA and other agencies such as the Capital Development
Authority (CDA) often fail to apply their own rules.
The process is also diverted due to corruption as
project proponents have deep pockets and large financial
interests to protect. One can only hope that EIAs
with glaring faults are not approved presently.
It is rare for a project to be halted on environmental
grounds because the burden of proof falls on those
who oppose it, and not on the proponent. Fighting
development projects takes considerable time, money
and expertise, and this makes it difficult for citizens
and public interest groups who are opposed to risky
Two personal experiences highlight the sorry state
of environmental oversight in Islamabad. One expects
the problems to be far worse away from the capital.
At a large public hearing to discuss the Kuri Landfill
project on the outskirts of Islamabad, it was unanimously
decided, with agreement from the CDA high officials,
that a committee of experts and citizens would be
appointed to find another location for this project.
(This was in Aug 2006 with 250 experts and concerned
The site selected had earlier been rejected by UNDP
and JICA (Japanese aid agency), as this area is
the recharge zone for the aquifer catering for more
than 50 per cent of Rawalpindi's and the capital's
drinking water. No committee has been instituted
Work on a massive building project, Centaurus, which
includes a seven-star hotel, luxury apartments,
office block and a shopping mall on 6.5 acres at
the busiest junction in Islamabad has started in
2006. This work has begun under the very noses of
PEPA and CDA. They ought to have stopped the work,
as it has started without a proper EIA and, equally
seriously, without a public hearing.
The website of Centaurus proudly displays a picture
of the skyscrapers printed on the cover of the Economic
Survey of Pakistan 2006-7, a respectable government
publication, with the caption "Identity of
the economic strength of the country". Quite
apart from the extravagance of this project in a
country marred by poverty, its very inception has
been illegal. Its EIA has yet to be made public,
although work started way back in 2006. Why have
both the CDA and PEPA overlooked such a gross violation
of the law in the center of the capital?
Given that this luxury project will change the very
nature of Islamabad, it is important that the Supreme
Court, only a short distance away from this site,
take suo motu action against its illegal construction,
and investigate the oversight of the public and
private bodies involved.
(The author is a physicist with an interest in environmental