Islamabad – The Margalla Hills are no stranger to the destructive touch of machines.
For over 30 years, stone crushers have eaten away at the Hills, quarrying, drilling, blasting and crushing rocks into fine gravel that goes into building roads and highways.
But with both the natural habitat of the Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) and the air quality of the surrounding areas at risk, environmental watchdogs are up in arms against the stone crushers. They want the crushers to adopt eco-friendly measures or better still, go away for good. The crushers’ union claims thousands will be laid off and construction material will become scarce if their operations are shut down. In the ensuing tussle, both enforcers and violators look towards the policymakers, who seem to have fallen asleep since passing the environmental laws.
It is February 21. Around a dozen impatient men crowd in front of an elevated platform — the bench — inside a small room in the commissioner’s office compound in Rawalpindi. One of them interrupts an arguing lawyer.
“I only run the machine for four hours during the night, just to provide a living for my employees,” Safdar Shah tells the three-member Environmental Protection Tribunal. The tribunal is hearing cases against stone crushers operating in Taxila without approval from the Punjab Environment Protection Agency (EPA).
“We were not informed that a No Objection Certificate (NOC) was needed before starting the projects,” Raja Gulnawaz Abbasi, general secretary of the Margalla Stone Crushers’ Association, pitches in. The secretary Rawalpindi District Environment Office (DEO) Shaukat Hayat quickly denies this claim, saying the stone crushers never responded to initial compliance notices.
By next afternoon, the stone crushers’ pleas to get off easy are denied. Six of them are fined Rs30,000 each and given two months to come into compliance or face an additional Rs1,500 fine per day after the deadline. Others are asked to assure the DEO they have closed operations.
It is a small victory for Hayat and his colleagues who are trying to curb dust and harmful emissions generated by over 100 Taxila stone crushers working in the western side of the MPNH, most of which never submitted an environmental examination report to the Punjab EPA for approval.
Another 16 stone crushers operate illegally in the MHNP inside the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), says Asif Shuja, director general of Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA). These crushers violate the Islamabad Wildlife Ordinance 1979 which prohibits clearing land for mining in a national park.
The Pak-EPA launched two operations against stone crushers in the past 10 years, requested the power company to cut the crusher’s electricity and wrote to ICT administration several times, but the stone crushers are still at work.
Some environment officers claim the capital’s stone crushers have political backing and the provincial EPAs lack capacity. For example, the Rawalpindi DEO is taking on environmental pollution with only three field officers and the Punjab government’s allocation for environment is just 0.14 per cent of its total 2012-13 Annual Development Programmes budget.
The stone crushers are also clever. According to one Rawalpindi DEO officer, stone crushers keep shifting their machines to new quarry areas under new names, so notices served for old locations become invalid.
Lack of coordination between the Punjab Department of Mines and Minerals, which issues leases for stone crushing, and the Punjab EPA also creates an enforcement challenge.
Abbasi says the Taxila stone crushing industry employs 20,000 people, none of whom have ever fallen sick due to air pollution. But the studies conducted by the DEO and Pak-EPA since 2010 show particulate emissions from stone crushing are 33 to 40 times more than the environment quality standards.
The crushing activity also destroys the natural habitat for the 38 species of mammals and over 600 plant species in the MHNP, Shuja says.
“The governments should not issue any new leases and help move the existing crushing machinery to alternate locations outside the national park,” he says. “We also need to rehabilitate the already-damaged area.”
The Rawalpindi DEO proposes the use of wet scrubbers and sprinklers to suppress dust from crushers but some of these solutions require water and costs might run around Rs200,000.
Government subsidies on remedial measures might help, but as in most government policies regarding the environment, the stakeholders were not taken on board before the laws were passed.
The stone crushers are now pushing for a meeting with the Punjab EPA to voice their concerns before the next tribunal hearing in April. In the meanwhile, the Rawalpindi DEO wants to capitalize on the tribunal’s verdict and prevent air quality degradation by moving cases against more stone crushers.