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A tunnel without vision

AFIA SALAM

 

The term ‘ tunnel vision’ has always been used as a pejorative. People accused of having it are also variously called myopic, short-sighted, shallow, etc. But when one hears of grandiose projects like Islamabad New City, to be made accessible to the old one through a tunnel to be drilled through the National Park in the Margalla Hills, one wishes to plaster all of the above words and more on those conceiving the project!

What goes on in the heads of the people who come up with these schemes? Are they still rooted in the infrastructure development model that now stands rejected everywhere because it was unmindful of sustainability? Do they get a high thinking of brick and mortar, steel and glass structures coming up at the detriment of the existing natural and social environment, disturbing the ecosystem and displacing communities? Or do they drool over the prospects of billions of rupees/dollars changing hands?

Is that what it is about? Building a shiny, new wide road to connect Islamabad to Haripur by shaving off 10 to 15 minutes off the existing road? Is that what their cost-benefit analysis justifies? Or will the real benefit come from the real estate bonanza this project will spin off?

These lop-sided priorities are not the only reason why Islamabad’s civil society has banded together, under the aegis of the Margalla Hills Society, led by the seasoned campaigner, former civil servant, Roedad Khan.

Members of the Islamabad civil society protesting against the tunnel project. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Members of the Islamabad civil society protesting against the tunnel project. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Luckily for them, they have found another champion for their cause in Senator Mushahid Hussain, who had moved an adjournment motion in the Senate, and highlighted the illegality of the intent in a forceful enough manner that made the Supreme Court take a suo moto notice.

The Supreme Court has also put on notice CDA, NHA, Cabinet Division and the provincial governments of Punjab and KPK, though this project had to have the buy in from the Planning Commission, ECNEC and the Environment Protection Agency.

What is extremely interesting is that this is proving to be quite a cloak and dagger game, with authorities publicly denying that any such project is in the offing and Roedad Khan adamant that those in the know have assured him that it is going ahead.

Former bureaucrat, Roedad Khan addressing the protestors. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Former bureaucrat, Roedad Khan addressing the protestors. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

 

Now that the matter is before the Supreme Court hopefully it will become clearer. What also needs to be made clear is why this tunnel is such a bad idea.

The environmentalists think it is a bad idea, and rightly so. The area Margalla Hills (12605 hectares) the Rawal Lake, andShakarparian Sports and Cultural complex was declared as a National Park in 1980.

This is one of the 29 National Parks in Pakistan, which fall under the category of Protected Areas. As of 2012, 22 of these are under supervision of respective provincial governments and remaining are in private care. Legislation giving them this status enshrines in itself the intent to conserve the flora, fauna and biodiversity in its natural state.

However, they can be made accessible to the public for recreation, education and research. The latter has been more than taken care of through access roads into the Park. It is the former, the natural assets that stand threatened by development, in a manner that can be described as unsustainable.

A member of the Steering Committee formed by the concerned citizens, with the assistance of the Margalla Hills Society, Bilal Haq said:

 

Ostensibly the reason of the tunnel is to reduce travel time from Haripur to Islamabad so as to facilitate the people of that area. This can be done by making the existing road infrastructure better, making it signal free. An arrangement like this would reduce only 15-20 minutes from a total of about an hours travel time compared to a direct tunnel.

This incremental improvement is not worth destroying the natural Margalla habitat. And if the proposed tunnel is part of a corridor to connect Rawat then it will have to be close or on the existing residential areas of Islamabad (F-6/F-7). However, if the intent is to get the value of the already acquired real estate near and on the Margallas then this purpose will be served by the tunnel.”

Dr. Farrukh Chishty, also a member of the Steering Committee cautioned that; “The proposed Margalla tunnel has the potential to cause significant and irreversible environmental damage. This includes loss of biodiversity, unmitigated air and water pollution due to crushing of rocks and emission of harmful gases from heavy machinery.

 

The risks of quarrying in a seismic zone should also be considered, as mining and quarrying blasts generate ground motion which resembles natural earthquakes – this could lead to unintended consequences as Islamabad is on five major fault lines. Further, a great amount of resources, including water and fuel will be spent on creating this tunnel, which ultimately will benefit only a few in the short term and harm all in the now and the future.

Their call to attention is now attracting the notice of the authorities, who can sense a fight on their hands, and by the Islamabad civil society, which will have to come up and show that a segment of the society is willing to own this city as its own! There have been protest meetings and walks at the park to raise the issue, and the above mentioned Steering Committee is a result of these collective efforts.

Members of the Islamabad civil society protesting against the tunnel project. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Members of the Islamabad civil society protesting against the tunnel project. -Photo courtesy of Kuch Khas.

Dr. Jawad Chishty, of Subh e Nau, an organisation that has been in the forefront of environment, and a member of the Steering Committee puts forward many arguments against this tunnel project:

He says the first argument is moral. This is a protected piece of land that the Government itself set aside for conservation. Do we want to allow the rape of this pristine land for profits that line a few pockets? Whatever the economic argument for it, the ethical/moral argument is the strongest. It is based on health, social, environmental and countless other impacts. There is no way to size up nature, and therefore, it is not possible to humanly calculate the costs of this project.

The second is on the basis of environmental, social and health impacts. Pollution of all types, air, water, land and noise is going to increase and cause irreparable damage to the health of the populations on both sides of the tunnel.

The area is meant for conservation, and Monal, La Montana, street lights and rabid commercialisation have and are seriously damaging the eco-system of the area. The Rawal Lake area has been destroyed in the name of the Lake View Park.

The Biodiversity argument is also extremely important. The MHNP is a sanctuary for wildlife and plants, including birds and animals such as the grey goral, the barking deer and the leopard, many of which are becoming extinct, or are threatened.

Many do not know that Islamabad is a wild bird sanctuary, and many migratory birds from different regions of the world stay here. This is mainly because of the MHNP. Poor air quality because of the transportation and road building has reduced these populations. Implementation of planned mass transit schemes are the need for Islamabad, not a tunnel that brings in unimaginable and unaccountable damage for decades to come.

Dr. Chishty is a strong advocate of the ‘precautionary principle’ of not undertaking any step that can threaten the environment as it directly or indirectly hurts our health and interests. If people want to make money there is always the option of developing eco-tourism, but then of course, the monetary windfall will not be comparable.

So, while the ‘stakeholders’ trudge off to the court to explain the pros and cons of this project, or even the fact whether it is a figment of the imagination or a clear and present danger, there is a need for the civil society to act as a watchdog to safeguard this national, natural asset.

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