Literary review of the environment chapter-Ahmad Rafay Alam

The Government of Pakistan released its Economic Survey for 2007-2008 earlier this month. As an example of writing, it is tedious in the extreme, with the reader constantly summoned to interpret innocuous phrases or made to jump over statistics, the literary equivalent of hurdles. If one stumbles, the survey can have its way. It can even convince you that all is well. But modest scrutiny reveals far more of the plot than its author was allowed to reveal.

Take, for example, this paragraph from the chapter on energy: “During the last ten years, the consumption of petroleum products has increased at an average rate of 1.2 percent per annum, while the consumption of gas, electricity and coal have increased by 7.6 percent, 5.5 percent and 9.2 percent per annum, respectively. . . . While the consumption of petroleum prices is by and large exhibiting a declining trend, particularly since 2000-2001, the consumption of gas, coal and electricity are showing a rising trend.” If the reader falls asleep – a forgivable sin, given the soporific meter of the Survey’s prose – he may miss the obvious: that there’s a shortage of diesel on the streets of Lahore. A pie chart referred to elsewhere in the paragraph shows the “rising trend” of electricity consumption in the last decade. From a 15 percent share, it has leapt – wait for it – to a 16 percent share. One really has to keep on their toes.

Nevertheless, the Survey is still important. If nothing else, the chapter on the environment is a one-stop collection of the work the Government of Pakistan is doing on the subject. The chapter is written by a Shafaq Zaheer, a junior economist with specialisation in, non sequitur, fiscal policy and taxation over at the Debt Policy Coordination Office of the Ministry of Finance. Shafaq reports that, in 2007, the government launched the second phase of its National Environment Action Plan (NEAP). The first phase, Shafaq proudly tells us, delivered us the National Environment, Sanitation, National Forest and Energy Conservation policies, as well as a Clean Development Mechanism Strategy. A deep breath of city air later, one can assess the success of these initiatives. Can one overlook this discrepancy as a bit of creative licence?

There is more, Shafaq tells us. NEAP has now launched its second phase. This second coming, so to speak, envisions a “wide range of technical, institutional and economic interventions focussed around pollution control, climate change and environmental governance.” Now that the institutions and policies are in place, we are asked to believe, work begins in earnest. We are informed that even the Federal Public Sector Development Programme, 2007-2008, allocated Rs80 billion for “environment sector projects.” Shafaq manages to ratchet up some tension in the plot at this point. This Rs80 billion is, after all, money allocated for some 52 actual projects geared towards awareness, capacity-building, environmental monitoring, fuel efficiency in the transport sector, waste management, and the urban environment. Is this good news? Will the money be spent? Will our hero overcome? Tune in next week.

Not quite. As an indication of where in the pecking order of things “environment sector projects” are, the Survey, rather embarrassingly, lets on that, as of January 2008, less than 25 percent of the allocation had been utilised. If the Survey were a thriller, it would have a disappointing climax.

Shafaq, fiscal and tax policy gears ill at ease in the cogs of an environment report, then tries to dazzle the reader with the “dedicated” efforts of the government in adopting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Sadly, this tale isn’t worth the telling. For instance, we lag behind goals set for sanitation and clean drinking water, and with urbanisation showing “an upward trend” – a curious phrase often employed by Shafaq – one can’t hold hope for us catching up.

All is not doom and gloom, however. There have been successes, and strides made forward. The government has electrified 1,762 off-grid villages using solar power. The MDG on converting petroleum-based automobiles to CNG has been more than achieved. By this fiscal year, the government had targeted 920,000 conversions. However, the actual number stands at over 1.7 million. And even Shafaq concedes that “the pursuit of growth and development places a heavy burden on sustainability,” which, while not answering one of the pressing dilemmas of our times, at least recognises it. But she goes too far by crowning these replacements as a “major step towards protecting environment especially in urban areas where air pollution is fast becoming a menace.” Before one gets ready for a round of applause, however, remember that there are 1.7 million automobiles on the streets of Lahore alone. Much more needs to be done to wean us off our addiction to the automobile and petroleum-based fuels.

It isn’t the just the hyperbole that makes the chapter on the environment an unattractive read, it’s also the massive plot holes. While Shafaq weaves her story around descriptions of the state of the environment and the steps taken by the government carry out its agenda, one can’t but help asking where the real story is. Where is the tale of how the environment affects the economy? Where are the figures of how many man-hours are lost to things like respiratory disease, allergies or asthma? Where is the meat, so to speak.

If readers are interested, I would recommend another work by the nameless writers at the World Bank. Their Strategic Country Environment Assessment of Pakistan is a page-turning eye-opener, even if it was written as long ago as 2005. As far as reports go, weathering the tests of time fairly well. And as far as plot development, said nameless writers offer up far more “meat” on the effects of the environment on our economy. It tells us that Pakistan’s economy loses $6 billion annually due to mismanagement of our environment. Our water supply, sanitation and hygiene suffer an annual loss of Rs112 billion. The loss due to soil degradation is Rs70 billion per annum, and urban air pollution (over and above the disease and illness caused to millions) causes an annual economic loss of Rs65 billion.

These figures aren’t new. They’ve been made available to all on the World Bank’s website. But the environment chapter of our Economic Survey doesn’t mention it once. To be fair, if Shafaq’s writing shows some weakness, it’s because she was handed a bad plot and poor characters. What can one make of such a sorry cast? Certainly not a convincing report.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx

The News, 30/6/2008

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