Bus Rapid Transit System: Govt slammed for violating environment law
Project started before public hearing on environmental impact.
Government officials faced a barrage of criticism at a public hearing to discuss the environment impact assessment (EIA) of the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) project on Saturday, weeks after the project was inaugurated.
As at the public hearings for the flyover projects at Kalma Chowk and Muslim Town last year, citizens and environmentalists pointed out that the project was started well before the hearing, which is a violation of Section 12 of the Punjab Environment Protection Act.
The law states that the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) must prepare an EIA report and hold a public hearing to address citizens’ concerns for any urban development project costing over Rs50 million during the planning phase and not after the project starts.
“It’s been a month after the first phase of the project and we’re seeing a public hearing today,” said Justice (retired) Nasira Iqbal, a former judge of the Lahore High Court, following a 20-minute presentation on the EIA at the start of the hearing.
“This should have been held in December 2011, before floating the tenders, before getting the funds, not today. It’s our money, the taxpayers’ money spent on this … Now what we say does not matter. If we object, can you undo the spending on this project?”
Traffic Engineering and Planning Agency (TEPA) Director Mazhar Hussain Khan reacted by asking the participants to trust the government. “This has started in a pilot phase. It is the first time the government has taken up a project which is in the interest of the poor. Have a little faith,” he said.
Imrana Tiwana of Lahore Bachao Tehreek said the government did not deserve their trust. “When the chief minister, TEPA and the EPD are disrespecting the law, how can they expect the public to trust them? The answer is no. Our questions and suggestions are futile when you have violated the law,” she said.
“This is the only platform where the public can voice their concerns,” said Ahmad Rafay Alam of the Pakistan Environment Lawyers Association. “This is our right. Please engage us and inform us.”
Alam said there were several problems with the EIA report. He said the report was too general and lacked specifics about the environmental consequences of the project. He said the EPD should prepare guidelines for EIAs in each sector (water, transport, etc). The reports should be strategic and build on reports done for other projects before, he said.
He also raised objections to mention in the report of 32 water samples taken from Shahdara that the report said passed National Environment Quality Standards (NEQS). “First, I refuse to believe that they cleared lab test for NEQS. Second, I do not understand the relevance of testing groundwater at Shahdara when the BRTS is being established on the Ferozepur Road,” he said.
Khan said that the BRTS would eventually run all the way from Gajju Mata to Shahdara, which is why groundwater had been tested there. He said groundwater there would be monitored by the project’s environment committee once work begins there. The EIA proposes an allocation of Rs3 million, out of the total Rs8.1 billion budget for the BRTS, for the committee, which is yet to be set up.
Alam also had reservations about plans to set up bus stops for the BRTS at 1-km intervals along the main road rather than in the middle of the road where the bus-only lane is being constructed. “People will be run over even if you set up posts with buttons for people to press and cross the road to get to the BRTS lane. This is not feasible,” he said.
He suggested an expansion of the pavement on both sides of Ferozepur Road. “Walk lanes should be enhanced from three metres to at least seven and motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians should be segregated to avoid accidents,” he said.
He also urged the TEPA officer to state in writing that the BRTS corridor would not be used for VIP movement. The TEPA officer assured him that would not be the case.
Kamil Khan Mumtaz of the Lahore Conservation Society questioned the panel about the number of trees chopped down at the project site. Khan of TEPA said he did not know how many trees had been cut down, but knew that they had been transplanted elsewhere. (Parks and Horticulture Authority Director Muhammad Tahseen later told The Express Tribune that 150 trees had been chopped down and planted in Gulberg and near the airport.)
Khan said the BRTS, once complete, would help 8,000 people commute from Kahna to Shahdara in an hour. A total of 139 buses would ply the track after the completion of the first phase from Chungi Amar Sidhu. A hundred buses have already been donated by the mayor of Istanbul.
Hafiz Abdul Qayyum, an EPD officer, admitted that the government had been wrong to hold the public hearing after the project had started. He added: “But now can we please move on and get only positive suggestions?”
A Nishtar Town resident questioned the panel about concessions to the elderly, the handicapped and students. Khan said they would be offered subsidised travel cards.
Asked if elevators would be installed along the road for handicapped people and senior citizens, Khan said they could use the buttons to stop the traffic and cross the road.
This angered Agha Qasim Raza, another citizen at the hearing. “Have you ever seen anyone following any traffic rules here? You expect the traffic in Lahore to stop for the old and the handicapped? This is insane. We are not in Turkey,” he added.
The hearing concluded with some suggestions. Tiwana suggested that the propositions submitted at the hearing be incorporated in the project plan. The project should be halted for two weeks and the plan should be revised, after which there should be another hearing, she said.
Another citizen suggested that EIAs and public hearings should be advertised on television and viewers invited to send suggestions and objections.
Kashif Bashir, environment officer from the National Engineering Services of Pakistan (NESPAK), which compiled the report with the EPD and TEPA, also attended the hearing. Naseemur Rahman Shah, the EIA director for the EPD, and Maqsood Ahmad Lak, the EPD director general, were absent from the hearing.