Malakandites offer thanksgiving for closure of polluting industry

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PESHAWAR: Around 25 men, among them young and old, are sitting in a roadside mosque offering thankful prayers and reciting the holy Quran.  They are thanking Allah, not after a much- needed rain or getting rid of a chronic disease, nor from a militant or a robbery gang. But they are thanking Almighty Allah for returning them fresh air to take a quality breath.  Their air had been polluted by the waste of Sher Steel Mill in their neighbourhood of Dargai.

But with the blessings of their prayers and efforts, this anti-environment factory has finally been sealed by the district administration of Malakand.  The administration had so far been reluctant to take an action against the polluting mill but a judicial order from the Peshawar High Court forced them for the closure. This news brought a sigh of relief for the People of the scenic and lush green area. They are now hoping to once again have a healthy and pollution free environment, which had been badly affected by the emission-producing mills.

The court issued the landmark judgment in the favor of people of Dargai, Malakand on the main GT road from Peshawar to Swat on 7th February. The steel mills had been operating in the region without any no objection certificate (NOC) by the Environment Protection Agency.  The court directed the Deputy Commissioner Malakand to implement its order under the Environmental Protection Act 2014.

The pollution problem does not end with the closure of just one mill as it’s going to be an uphill battle for clearing the residential areas of all polluting industries in the Malakand division. According to the district administration, there are five steel mills, five Ghee mills, twenty-five crush plants and eighteen mining stone points situated inside the 0.7 million population of Malakand.  Plywood industry installed in a very built-up zone, emitting heavy dust particles is also a source of a headache for the locals who have staged many protests against the industry.

The worsening environmental condition is forcing many ailing residents to consider moving from the area. An old resident of Mehrday village, Abdul Qudoos, 55, told Apni Awaz that he and some of his family members have developed heart problems since these steel mills started operating in the area, producing tons of toxic waste without any check and balance. “We are advised by our doctor to migrate from this area as we are continuously inhaling this smoke that causes heart disease and dyspnea.”

It’s not an easy decision to leave the area for someone who has lived all his life at the same place,

“why would we leave this place, we and our ancestors have lived here, we have our properties, we are not going anywhere,” Abdul Qadoos reacts angrily to the calls for migrating from their place.

Syed Jamal Shah, general secretary of Insaf Labor wing for district Malakand, who owns a property adjacent to Sher Steel Mill, is known for his activism and campaign against the illegal installation of industries inside the residential zones.

“I found this steel mill installed inside the population zone and there was a huge emission of hazardous smoke causing different diseases in the area, and the people were doing nothing but suffering, ” Shah told Apni Awaz while giving details of his case that he filed against one of the steel mills in the area.

To him, he is fighting a war for the people of Malakand against the powerful industrialists and district administration. Shah also accused the deputy commissioner and his administration of supporting these mills, arguing that he and other citizens lodged many complaints with district administration against the illegal mills but to no avail.

“The Director General EPA showed us around twenty letters addressing the Deputy Commissioner to stop operation of the steel mills as they are running without the permission of the agency, but no action was taken against them,” he said.

According to the estimate by locals of Dargai, a single steel mill has 2000 of population in its surrounding while in a two kilometers square it effects 50000 of population from its smoke and noise but environment protection agency has allowed some of the steel mills to run after installing a machinery that sucks all the smoke and dust particles inside but the noise is still a problem.

Without giving his name, a senior citizen blamed the mill owners for fuelling protests against the imposition of taxes in Malakand Division by doling out money to the union presidents of Sakhakot, Dargai, Butkhela and Mingora Bazaar.  He said that they want to avoid taxes and other royalties by placing their industries here in Malakand Division. “These are like offshore companies in Malakand,” the citizen told.

Apni Awaz also talked to some industrialists to know their version of the story.  Muhammad Shoaib Shah, the director of AW Group of Industries and the owner of a steel mill, which does not have NOC at the moment, told Apni Awaz,

“A majority of local population is happy with the industrialization in the area as it provides job opportunities to the locals but a very limited number of people are against it due to environmental concerns,”

adding that they have a proper waste management system in place in Dargai.

He further said that he has been also running a Ghee mill here in Malakand for a decade but no such issue was raised before. About the case filed against his steel mill in Peshawar High Court, he said that he was waiting for the court’s decision and whatever the decision would be, he would follow it.

Some industry owners also mentioned the cumbersome bureaucratic process for getting NOC from the Govt. Aziz Ahmad, a resident of Sakhakot, Tehsil Dargai of Malakand and owner of a steel mill told that when he applied for NOC, then the Deputy Commissioner referred him to get NOCs from ten to twelve departments and he went through this process. “I belong to this area and I know the worse effects of steel industry waste so I installed the pollution control plant in my industry. The Environment Protection Agency officials inspected my industry and pollution management plant and found it okay, issuing me the operational NOC,” the owner concluded his tale of getting NOC.

Ahmad further mentioned that “the industries should be installed in the industrial zones instead of residential areas but there is no industrial zone in our city. He further told about the check and balance of EPA that “the industrialists have to provide the monthly report to the Industrial Development Officer in EPA and they can also demand the CCTV footage installed in the waste management plants anytime.”

He explained that the major interest for industrialists in Malakand is that it’s a tax-free zone but it also provides employability to the local people.

Dr Kachkol Khan, Medical Superintendent at Tehsil Headquarter Hospital Dargai told that industrialization contributes pollution to natural climate and causes chest and liver diseases.

“In some cases, the environment pollution causes chest cancer and other mortal diseases.”

“We are receiving asthma and skin diseases patients from the areas where there are industries. As we noticed that the number of patients suffering from chest diseases is increasing day by day which ultimately leads them to heart failure. So, we advise them to get shifted from the area or the steel mills should be closed,” the doctor said.

Dr Khan maintained that smoke particles not only cause air pollution but it comes down with the rain water and gets mixed with water resources of the area. “This water pollution causes not only stomach diseases but also skin related issues when people receive rain drops directly on their skin.  He further told that the people living around are suffering from psychological disorders as their sleep is disturbed by noise pollution.

Under the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Environment Protection Act 2014, EPA may investigate any environmental or pollution issue and can seal, or seize the attachment, holding, property, machinery, equipment or material involved in commission pollution offences or take into possession in a prescribed manner. The act was extended to Malakand in October 2016 but due to lack of awareness and complaint lodging mechanism by the EPA, the locals are still striving for a platform like EPA to register their concerns about environmental issues.

Pleading anonymity, a senior official at EPA told Apni Awaz that it is illegal to run any industry inside the built-up zone, under the 2014 Environment Protection Act such industries should be shut and shifted to another suitable place.

Replying to a question asked about no objection certificates issued by the district administration to steel mills Salman Khan, the Deputy Commissioner Malakand, explained that when Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Environment Protection Act 2014 was promulgated then the previous act was repealed but unfortunately the new act of 2014 was not extended to Malakand which is part of the provincially administered tribal area (PATA). Thus, Malakand was ungoverned in terms of Environment Protection till October 2016, he added.

“The trick was that when these steel mills were seeking NOC there was no environment protection law extended to Malakand and they were given permission to run their industries,” the DC said. When the DC was asked that why district administration allowed the industries to be set up inside population zones he simply replied that it was his predecessor’s decision and he couldn’t comment on it.

Edited by Hasan Khan 

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