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PTI’s ‘tsunami’ hits shisham trees on University Road

PTI’s ‘tsunami’ hits shisham trees on University Road

AUTUMN is almost coming to close yet it appears the hot weather is here to stay. Is it climate change or global warming? I guess both but somehow our policy makers are missing the point here.

In this backdrop, the ongoing “beautification” has destroyed several green belts, several indigenous, shady trees and public spaces. Under the stewardship of PDA, innovative traffic management strategies seem to have somewhat improved traffic, but these eye catching reforms mask the greater threat to sustainable and green solutions, which remain unfulfilled. There is hardly any breathing space for pedestrians or lanes for cyclists. The motto seems to be “Drive or Die!”

The corporate development model has shifted the focus from an inclusive (public) policy towards profit making (elitist) model. Thus money making mega projects like flyovers and multiple lanes for vehicles is a preferred government policy rather than investing in environmental-friendly alternatives like affordable public transport system for a larger population that would also reduce vehicular traffic and air pollution affecting millions. One is destined to choke with pollution if not driving in the comfort zone of an air conditioned vehicle.

Large indigenous trees are considered “lungs of the earth” being natural air conditioners, reducing heat but also absorbing large quantities of toxic gases like CO2 and CO etc. Instead of protecting precious trees as national assets, a concerted effort is on way to make extinct the rare species, instead opting for exotic palm species and other decorative plants, that worsen the environment besides unsuitable for local climate.

The WHO reports that polluted air is a public health emergency, nine out of 10 people globally breathe bad air that is blamed for more than six million deaths a year. The UN agency warns that nearly 90 per cent of air pollution-related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. “Pakistan too is suffering, with experts blaming unsustainable development, warning that proposals for more coal-fired power stations will further worsen air quality,” it adds.

Comprehensive study into increasing cases of malignancy, IHD, COPD, cardio vascular diseases and host of respiratory ailments would point a finger towards the highly toxic vehicular and industrial emissions. More scientific research on quality of air is needed for informed decision by public policy planners to factor in the health and wellbeing of a large adversely affected population.

As in previous governments, the remaining old shisham trees have again come under axe of PDA, along University Road opposite BISE and Islamia College Peshawar. This is another ill-advised project for adding up fourth lane to ease traffic.

Despite repeated expansions in 2008, 2010 and 2013 with loss of many precious trees, traffic has increased exponentially, quickly outpacing the added lanes. Civil organisations have long expressed their reservations about felling precious heritage trees for short sighted development policy. PDA had given an undertaking that further road expansion would not be carried out on University Road and would protect the existing (few) heritage trees, in response to a stay order filed in PHC by five CSOs in 2010. This undertaking has been violated again by ongoing PDA road expansion.

Increase or adding up more lanes may give temporary relief, but exacerbate traffic congestion, being quick fix and not a long term solution. It is allegedly meant to benefit the powerful timber lobbies (for furniture export) of expensive and rare shisham (rose wood). Some officials are allegedly linked to this business. Shisham trees predating 1947 have become extinct for their high economic rewards for all involved in this sordid business in Pakistan.

With climate change and global warming around the corner, Pakistan should be conserving and not felling large indigenous trees, essential to fight emerging ‘heat island effect’ in large (polluted) cities like Peshawar. There appears to be a criminal disregard. The rise in temperature in the otherwise moderate autumn (October) is a signal that all is not well. An inclusive (public) environment policy should top the policy agenda.

PTI’s billion-tree tsunami project appears far-fetched to general public as it is not grounded in local political and social milieu. A disconnect between policy making and public demand cannot be more acute in all major cities when left at the mercy of a ubiquitous timber mafia and increasing air pollution, Peshawar being no exception.

Peshawar needs development of alternative (available) road routes other than further expansion of University Road being the main artery. Besides, policy on alternate transport systems like mono rail or MTS is long overdue and slow in implementation.

Policy makers need to work “out of the box” solutions and include experts from Institute of Architects of Pakistan (KP chapter), senior citizens and CSO forums for a sustainable (green) solution rather than destruction of (last) remaining heritage trees in Peshawar.

Therefore, to begin with, an immediate halt to ongoing road expansion, upgrading EPA and giving it powers to vet development projects sans political pressure, besides, setting up of independent expert advisory boards in KP each district, is the answer to get out of the destructive vicious cycle.

Finally, besides measuring success in terms of GDP growth, the government needs to also factor in “quality of life” and “physical and mental health” as major indicators to measure development.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2016

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