Islamabad – Saturday’s public hearing on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report of the Metro Bus project’s Islamabad section might have been a case of “too little, too late” to protect against any potential environmental and economic harm from the project.
Despite severe criticism from environmentalists and residents on various aspects of the project, officials stuck to their claim that the Metro Bus project would not lead to any violations of the capital’s Master Plan.
As officials and residents argued over the cost, scope and bizarre road modifications of the project at the hearing, the city’s environmental watchdog only appeared to be following rules that might not lead to any meaningful action against the project’s apparent infringement of environmental laws.
In the hearing which stretched a little over two hours, civil society members said they supported a mass transit system for the city in principle.
But they were concerned about the specific execution of the current Metro Bus project, in particular, risks to Islamabad’s natural environment from the project, the lack of alternatives in the EIA report and the alleged bias in the environmental assessment.
They also indicated the public hearing should have been held months ago construction on the project had already started in Rawalpindi in March and in Islamabad on May 1.
Officials from the project’s executing agency, the Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA), its Islamabad facilitator, the Capital Development Authority (CDA), and the project’s consultant firm, NESPAK, did not concede to either any Islamabad Master Plan violations or to any irreversible environmental degradation that are feared to arise from the project.
Instead, they claimed an elaborate environmental monitoring management plan will be enforced for the project, with one percent of the Rs27.3 million project’s budget to be spent on environment protection.
The under-construction project, planned to be completed in eight months, will have a fleet of 60 buses which will run on a dedicated corridor throughout, from Flashman’s hotel in Rawalpindi along the Murree Road to enter Islamabad at the 9th Avenue from the IJ Prinicipal Road near Faizabad and then move along the Jinnah Avenue to reach the Secretariat.
The project will dig an elaborate tunnel-trench to turn the bus track from 9th to Jinnah Avenue and build an interchange at Peshawar Mor as proposed by CDA. But it is the dedicated road for the bus project that is perhaps most controversial.
So much dedication
Islamabad resident Fawad Anwar, an engineer, was exasperated at the public hearing at why the government needed a separate road for the bus when it had three lanes and four lanes in each direction on the 9th Avenue and Jinnah Avenue respectively.
“The lane that already exists should be used to run the bus,” said Imrana Tiwana, an architect from Lahore who also said that better management, not exaggerated infrastructure, is the only way to avoid traffic congestion in growing cities.
NESPAK EIA team leader Kashif Bashir said the dedicated corridor in Islamabad is required because jaywalking and traffic congestion will prevent speedy bus service.
Anwar maintained that the trees at risk, some of which Bashir said would be transplanted along with 10 trees planted for one tree lost, will be saved if additional lanes are not inserted by destroying the green belt. But what if there were no green belts?
What green belts?
The CDA Chairman Maroof Afzal categorically said the green areas on either side of the 9th Avenue are not green belts at all. They are actually the “Right of Way,” stretching 600 feet on either side of the road that CDA can use to expand the road, Afzal said.
“I reassure you that [there is] no Master Plan violation,” he said. “No green belts are being disturbed.”
While some Islamabad residents, most of whom appeared to be supporters of the PML-N, said the trees could be ignored for the greater good, others even contested, on grounds of conflict of interest, the legality of the EIA report, which has been prepared by NESPAK, the consultant firm for the metro bus project.
Dr Farrukh Chishtie, from Islamabad environment concern Subh-e-Nau, said the EIA report was “not objective.” “It is too close to the vested interests of the developers,” Chishtie said.
Both RDA and NESPAK officials said environmental concerns have been flagged in the report and money and mitigation efforts have been mentioned. They said the Pak-EPA can raise questions on their report. The Punjab Environment Protection Agency had approved a separate EIA report prepared by NESPAK after a public hearing in March.
But the officials could not deny the fact that work has already started in Islamabad without Pak-EPA’s approval.
The Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) has issued a notice to the Rawalpindi Development Authority for starting work on the Islamabad section of the Metro Bus project without first getting a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Pak-EPA.
The agency’s Director-General Dr Muhammad Khurshid, who chaired the public hearing, said the notice had been issued. According to the Pakistan Environmental Protection Ordinance, a proponent — in Metro Bus’s case, the RDA — cannot start construction until an EIA is submitted and government’s approval is obtained.
RDA Managing Director, Rawalpindi’s Commissioner Captain (Retired) Zahid Saeed told The Express Tribune the construction in Islamabad was started before the NOC because the Islamabad leg is behind schedule and the project’s strict timelines have to be met to finish it on time.
If the RDA defies the Pak-EPA’s notice, the agency can issue an Environmental Protection Order and produce it before an environmental protection tribunal. Unfortunately, Islamabad does not have a functional environmental tribunal, according to the Ministry of Law, Justice & Human Rights.
Other participants also indicated that the bus is only serving one route to which CDA Chairman Afzal replied that the CDA plans to integrate the Metro Bus route with at least three intra-Islamabad routes within 2014.