Grappling with the environment time bomb
After the recent tragedy of the Karachi SITE toxic dump, the need to implement the existing environmental laws has come into the limelight. From urban pollution to filthy water and deforestation, the city of Karachi is faced with one growing environmental menace after another. With the World Environment Day to be observed on June 5, there is a great need to assess the whole environmental situation. Special efforts are required by all stakeholders to stress for the implementation of the existing laws
By Anil Datta
For eleven years old Shiraz Khan, life is not the greatest blessing any more. It is going to be a noose around his neck perhaps for decades to come. Imagine the pathetic, deeply touching scenario when, in a state of semi-consciousness, he, in his angelic, childlike innocence, was time and again asking his sister, “Baaji, will I ever be able to walk again?” He somehow had got the foreboding of the traumatising reality that his legs had been amputated and that he’d been rendered immobile for the rest of his life, a life span, which could stretch over decades due to the callous negligence of an industrialist.
Shiraz and his friends were just taking a short-cut to school one morning when they stepped into a morass next to a factory in Karachi’s SITE where the irresponsible factory management had been most callously disposing off lethal effluents. While Shiraz’s companion, Iftikhar, died of the poisoning, Shiraz’s fate is going to be far more horrifying. He will have to go through this living death for the rest of his life, all because of a cruelly apathetic factory owner who seems to have been held least accountable for his crime, among other reasons, reportedly being closely related to a provincial VIP. He is reported to be out on bail concerned.
Whether this unauthorised waste dumping was being carried out by the factory owner himself or by a dishonest contractor who was just out to save time and money by failing to transport the waste to the allotted disposal site, could be anybody’s guess. Even if it is the latter, still the factory owner could not be absolved of his cruel negligence. And, of course, the official departments that are there to guard against such delinquency are equally responsible and could not be absolved of their role in the tragedy. Why are there no regular checks and raids by the concerned departments to ensure that civic functions like waste disposal are being conducted in accordance with due rules and regulations?
The hair-raising episode is just a microcosm of the collective apathy that seems to be a hallmark of modern-day society. Those who are entrusted with the responsibility of disposing of poisons, just do not have the heart to realise that their callousness could be somebody else’s superlative tragedy. We today are least concerned about the very existence of our kindred folk as long as long as our interests are catered to, as long as we can have a ball of a time, and as long as we can reap a bonanza even if it is at the cost of another precious human life.
Ghastly as the case may be, a detailed scrutiny of records reveals that it is certainly not the first of its kind. Many years ago, the residents of the Korangi Industrial Area were found to be getting sodium nitrite in their water mains. This is a substance used for shedding hair off hides and skins of animals and the vicinity has a proliferation of tanneries. It is a chemical that causes blindness and if taken in large quantities, death. We just have no record of those who must have lost their sight or their lives. All we know is that leather goods exporters are presented export performance awards every year but have they ever been punished by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for this callous disregard for the lives of those around them, those who are not as fortunate as they, who are poor and on the lower rungs of the financial and social ladder? Have the police and the law enforcers ever taken these murderous capitalists to task for bagging these prestigious awards at the cost of the health and safety of the poor? Cogent questions there!
For the last two decades, the world is abuzz with talk of the damage being caused to the global environment by the hole in the ozone layer above the Earth. However, as far as we in the country’s big cities are concerned, we don’t have to go hundreds of miles up into space to scrutinise the ecological damage being caused by the hole. We see environmental degradation all around us right here, round the clock, be it our cities, our forests, our waterways, or human life as such.
Take a jaunt along Karachi’s arterial thoroughfare, M. A. Jinnah Road, and even in the daytime when the sun is at its zenith, one wades through a dirty black haze, all the pounds upon pounds of diesel exhaust fumes released into the air. These carbon monoxide fumes are absolute poison for the human pulmonary system, absolutely lethal. While, unlike Shiraz Khan, these fumes may not kill right away, they are the prime cause of lung cancer. The record of the rising cases of millions of deaths these cruelly apathetic drivers of these rickety vehicles may have caused over the last two decades through pulmonary cancer.
Absolutely non-roadworthy rickety hulks of buses are seen racing across the most crowded thoroughfares, often three abreast, releasing exhaust fumes ‘with utmost generosity’ right under the nose of the lawmen. Recently, after years and years of hue and cry over the lethal state of public vehicles, the traffic police began a campaign against them but for reasons best known to them – and to the transporters – the drive seems to have ended with a whimper almost as soon as it had begun.
Spotting disposal of hospital waste is just not at all like looking for a needle in a haystack. See the vicinity of any hospital in town, in the congested areas and see for yourselves the callous manner whereby the waste is dumped in heaps along the outer boundary walls of these centres of healing, spreading germs and disease.
Take noise pollution. Just visit the Empress Market area and see – or hear – for yourself the terribly dissonant orchestra of buses honking away their pressure horns in unison. According to sources at the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR), the noise pollution level in the Empress Market vicinity is 128 decibels, absolutely detrimental to the human auditory and nervous systems. Small wonder then that people here are so irritable, short-tempered and their nerves constantly at the tether’s end.
Leave aside metropolises like Karachi, it is reported that countrywide, 65 percent of the population have to drink polluted water. They do not have access to potable water. In Karachi, people have often been known to get the filthiest kind of pollution in their water mains, one that cannot be named for fear of hurting the readers’ sensitivities and making them throw up. This is because the ageing underground water and sewerage lines have become perforated over the decades and the fluids from the two intermix underground. According to a survey, 65 percent of Karachi’s population suffers from various kinds of worms. This is an affliction that comes from consuming polluted water and renders the host lazy and enervated. Imagine how productive – or otherwise – a workforce afflicted with the disorder could be.
And now – we move from the localised to the national scenario. According to internationally stipulated standards, a country must have at least 25 percent of its land mass under forest. Pakistan has a puny 4.7 percent of forested landscape. This too is rapidly dwindling. One has to visit our once superlatively picturesque mountainous north to see the atrocious deforestation that is taking place all over, all to satiate the avarice of the furniture and timber mafia in the big urban centres on the plains. Apart from rendering the mountain scape uncomely, this has wrought massive ecological damage with flash floods often occurring twice within the same summer on account of the topsoil being eliminated along with the trees and there being no barrier to arrest the onrush of the water. These floods entail losses to the tune of millions and lives and property.
Loss of arable land
It is pathetic to see the once verdant plains with the lush fields and tall trees capitulating to the dictates of capitalism and giving way to mammoth industrial plants and other symbols of urbanisation. According to a study carried out by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), 3.3 million acres of Pakistan’s arable land capitulated to urbanisation in the form of factories, housing colonies, and others during 1981-90. Imagine the loss to agriculture in a country, which has an agro-based economy!
No wonder that today, despite being an agricultural economy, we have to import food and farm items. It is heart rendering to see the once superlatively lush and verdant countryside between Lahore and Sialkot in the Punjab having totally vanished, leaving in its wake, those sordid symbols of commercialism like shops, showrooms, internet cafes, marriage halls, and mammoth factories discharging their effluents into the waterways nearby. This in turn is depleting the waterways of their stocks of fresh water fish. Right here in Karachi, we see an intricate network of channels carrying industrial effluents meandering their way into the sea, poisoning the marine life along the shores, the richest and the most accessible source of protein.
What is most evident in all this grim scenario is the utter lack of awareness on part of the masses about environmental pollution, all on account of a debilitating lack of education, and the apathy on part of the powers that be who are responsible for the masses’ welfare but are least concerned because they themselves live on islands of extreme affluence amid an ocean of dereliction. Given the deeply classed society we are, these guardians of the masses’ would be least concerned about the privations of the poor, the less fortunate.
One really wonders, how many Shiraz Khan’s there will have to be before we finally wake up to the dangers of the environmental time bomb that is simply continuously ticking away…