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Loud generators- Ahmad Rafay Alam

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2009 is the national year of the environment. The ministry of environment has arranged a roster full of events to raise awareness about the environment this year. Their initiatives are well-timed and much-needed. However, there is plenty to be done.

The Environmental Protection Tribunal in Lahore, which is the statutory body charged with resolving disputes under the Pakistan Environment Protection Act, 1997 (PEPA), has not been operational for the past few months because it does not have a chairman. The previous chairperson retired after completing her term and the federal government has not yet notified a new chairman. Until that happens, all the environmental disputes in the province lie waiting.

The non-functioning of the tribunal is not the only issue that needs to be addressed, and quickly. There is also the issue of implementing the PEPA.

Last week, I received a frantic phone call from a resident of Gulberg. She was suffering from a type of environmental pollution unique to our residential areas: the noise from generators. While the lack of electricity is a problem common to all Pakistanis, and while the use of generator in residences is restricted to an elite few, the way this problem played out showed signs of how and where enforcement of the PEPA is lacking.

The generator operated by this lady’s neighbour was so loud, she told me, that she was forced to call me from inside her bathroom. It was the only place in her house where she could hear herself talk. Anyone who lives next to someone with a generator is familiar with this problem. Most do not have it so bad. But many do.

Under PEPA, noise is recognised as a form of pollution. Excess noise can disrupt a person’s reasonable enjoyment of life and property and, under the Penal Code, is also recognised as a public nuisance.

Many of the generators operating in our cities, whether they are used for residential, commercial or industrial use, are placed at ground level. Other than the noise, for which sound canopies are a minimum requirement, the smoke produced, especially by diesel-powered generators, is also emitted at ground level. Regardless of what sort of relief they provide people inside, these generators are lethal to people outside. To my knowledge, no standards exist whereby generator-users are required to attach chimneys to the exhausts to their machines. One would think this would be a basic requirement. Not of law, but of common decency owed to one’s fellow man.

Back to the enforcement action carried out by the EPA: as I said earlier, residential generator use is restricted to an elite few and this elite few wields disproportionate power and influence. The lady in question in April wrote to the district coordination officer and the district officer (environment) informing them of noisy and smoke-emitting generators operating on either side of her residence in Lahore’s Gulberg residential area. The DO (E) took swift action and issued a notice to the noise polluters concerned providing them with an opportunity of being heard before action, if any, was taken against them. Typically, the notice was ignored, the notice-servers were roundly abused and the noise-polluters refused to attend the hearing provided to them. According to a newspaper report, “the offenders not only tore the notice (served on them) but also abused the officials (of the EPA and the local government) and warned them to leave or face dire consequences.” It was alleged that the offending noise-polluters are government servants with connections to the present chief minister. Typical high-handed behaviour.

The local government filed a FIR against the noise-polluters for threatening them and hindering their official duties and, on April 29, the DO (E) issued another notice intimating to the noise-polluters that he was going to take action under the Local Government Ordinance and confiscate the generators.

In response to the confiscation, the noise-polluters filed their own FIR against the local government and the EPA officials involved, accusing them of breaking and entering and of theft of the generators. Faced with these tactics, the EPA and the local government officials capitulated and returned the generator. It is once again in regular use. According to a newspaper report, one of the officers involved “regretted being forced to return the generator when the police registered the counter-FIR.”

When I was called and informed of this incidence, I asked all the usual questions. Had she filed a complaint before the EPA? Yes, she had. Had the EPA taken action? Yes it had, through the DO (E), but his efforts proved quite futile. I knew she couldn’t approach the environment tribunal because it is defunct. The police had taken a stand against her by registering an FIR against the local government and EPA’s enforcement action. This was most distressing. The laws protecting citizens like this woman all exist, but they are nowhere understood and seldom enforced. In the presence of the law and even with the support of government officials, citizens of this country remain without redress.

This incident points to the many weaknesses in the enforcement of the provisions of PEPA. EPA enforcement notices are routinely ignored. Private interest prevails over public good. Their enforcement actions are rebuffed because the local police are ignorant of the provisions of the law.

Climate change, environmental degradation and pollution are some of the biggest challenges facing Pakistan, Pakistanis and the Pakistani economy. Each year, millions are affected by pollution. Tens of thousands lose their lives. The economy is affected as workers continually fall ill or are underproductive. And the big weapon we have to meet these challenges is PEPA. If laws like PEPA cannot resolve simple neighbourhood nuisance and usage disputes like this one, how can they stand up to the challenges of the future?

The chairman of the Chief Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change had taken some initiatives to review PEPA to give it more teeth. It certainly needs some. How come the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, which was also created in 1997, can sustain itself on the fines and penalties it collects and how come the Competition Commission of Pakistan can pass Rs100,000 orders against people who don’t show for hearings, but the Environment Protection Agency can’t come to the aid of someone suffering from a noisy generator? But the initiatives were put on hold when governor’s rule was cast onto the province. Little or no work has been done on this issue since.

Not all, however, is bad. As of last week, the last of the billboards at the intersection of Lahore’s Mall Road and the Canal were removed. The chief minister had earlier constituted a task force to make recommendations about what to do with these peculiar forms of litter and light pollution. Since then, hundreds of billboards have been removed. This is quite a feat. Year before last, the Parks and Horticulture Authority – which is, non-sequitur, responsible for regulating outdoor advertising – earned over Rs400 million in billboard fees in Lahore alone. One can imagine how large an industry this was. But to think that such moneyed private interests can be checked, and that too in a relatively short space of time, means that there is hope. Private interest does not always trump public good in this Islamic Republic.

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.

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