Environment department failed to perform its duties in 2016

  • Punjab Government’s EPD is being run on ‘look busy, do nothing’ model

Another year has ended with the failure of Punjab Government’s Environment Protection Department (EPD) as it remained reluctant to deal with environmental issues prevailing in the province. It remained mired in internal politics and nepotism, particularly in EPD’s regulatory Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) throughout the year.

Following the steps of 2015, the affairs of the department remained in the hands of inefficient officials who followed the centuries-old bureaucratic trick o f ‘looking busy and doing nothing’. The officials kept on wasting public money without any progress.

After the Climate Change Conference (COP21), held in Paris in Dec 2015, all member countries vowed to mitigate the challenges of climate change and other environment related issues, but no concrete efforts can be seen by authorities concerned in the Punjab province.

National and international institutions and other agencies working on environment have warned time and again about the rising pollution level in Pakistan, where it has already exceeded the international levels.

While the three provincial and the federal EPAs have not show any progress, the EPA of country’s largest province, Punjab, failed miserably to measure the rising levels of various air pollutants, blaming it on unavailability of sufficient equipment. Punjab EPA keeps on demanding more funds to updates its labs despite having laboratories and all necessary equipment provided by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). And yet, it has been unable to maintain data of various air pollutants for the past many years.

Year 2016 was the year when EPA plunged in litigation as several departmental issues were sub judice in different courts for various reasons. One of them was the removal of EPA Director General Javed Iqbal whose appointment was challenged in Lahore High Court. Chief Justice Mansoor Ali Shah of LHC ordered his removal from his office. Dr Javed Iqbal was appointed as DG EPA against the EPA rules. According to information available with Pakistan Today, a lack of competent staff caused EPA to lose almost all cases in Environmental Tribunal.

Administratively, Secretary EPD is responsible to keep the department up to the mark but he also failed in performing his duties which resulted in his transfer from the department by Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif.

The department was also caught in an array of cases of alleged corruption.

In June 2016, the EPA procured equipment called Inductive Couple Plasma (ICP) for Rs18 million to test metal in environmental samples despite the fact that it already had Atomic Absorption Spectrometres available at its Lahore and Multan laboratories for the purpose. This new equipment was not used till November. The ICP was later used in the wake of smog but no result was shown to media., following which a complaint was also lodged with the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The issue is now under investigation.

One of EPA’s main functions is to collect the data of air pollutants from different areas in the province. These pollutants can be created by industry, vehicles or other sources. The collected data is then analysed in its laboratories, and a strategy on how to deal with them is formulated based on the results of those analyses. For the said purpose, EPA has established its laboratories in seven districts of the Punjab other than its main lab in Lahore. Interestingly, during the year it failed to operate any of its laboratories in all districts including the one in Lahore. This means the authorities were blind to the actual situation of pollution in the province.

The department also failed to keep functional its Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Stations (AAQMS) throughout the year. It has three AAQMS: two earth bound and one monitoring. It appears the EPA has kept this costly equipment only to rust.

The department failed to maintain and its laboratories and could not make any significant progress.

The EPA also failed to resolve the matter of issuing NOCs to privately operated environmental lab. This inaction resulted in the suffering of those wanted to initiate their businesses. Thousands of other NOCs also remained unapproved.

The department also failed in concluding several inquiries a 90-day time limit to conclude them.

The EPA also failed to recruit staff on its vacant seats. It worked without five regular directors and seven deputy directors. The posts of senior inspectors, lying vacant since year 2011, were yet again not filled in 2016.

Vehicular pollution remained uncontrolled, especially in big cities. In May, Environment Minister Zakya Shahnawaz directed to action against vehicles involved in air pollution, but the drive was stopped for reasons best known to the authorities concerned.

Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif also expressed dissatisfaction with the environment department over its laxity in setting up of a proposed agency for environment protection and failure in its timely activation. He also said that the EPA should be restructured to improve its efficiency.

This year in November Lahore observed the worst smog in history. Experts say that the EPD should have been ready for it and predicted it so timely action could have been taken to tackle it.

However, the EPD put some efforts in handling polythene bags, dengue and hospital waste.

A spokesman of the EPA while talking to Pakistan Today said that EPA is well aware with of the environmental issues in the province. However, he was of the view that despite taking several measures the department could not perform up to the mark. He was optimistic for the next year however as the new Secretary EPD, he said, was more vigilant concerned about the situation of pollution in the province.