Environmental watchdog criticized over public hearing
Sindh’s environmental protection authority has been criticized for the way it held a public hearing into a Clifton, Karachi project and how it had it assessed.
Riffat Builders & Developers wants approval to build a 19-floor A&Z Tower on a plot in Clifton Block 1 near Sea Rock Apartments off Khayaban-e-Bedil. Part of the official process includes approvals from the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency or Sepa which has to check if this building will affect the surrounding environment. Sepa asked engineering firm EMC Pakistan to study this and prepare a report, which was produced by September 2019. (All such reports are uploaded to the Sepa website here, but you have to quickly download them in case they are taken off.)
The plot is 1,611 square yards for a 250-foot tall tower that will have 135 offices. Up to the seventh floor is parking and the rest is offices. It is expected to take three years to build. The address for the plot is No 2/2-A, Scheme 5 in Clifton Block 1.
It is the norm for Sepa to hold a public hearing to invite objections for such construction projects. Sepa held one for A&Z Tower on August 11 at its Korangi office. However, in a departure from the rules, people were asked to separately give their objections and ask questions to the panel of builders, developers and consultant. Usually, these hearings are conducted with everyone in a hall together with the builder and consultant having to respond to the public’s concerns. SEPA Deputy Director Imran Sabir said that they were holding it individually to maintain social distancing. But it was not clear how that was being achieved given that the hearing was still held in a crowded room of 10 people at least.
SEPA Deputy Director Imran Sabir has said that they have yet to grant approval and are in the process of compiling the public’s concerns before putting it to an expert committee, which takes 30 to 40 days.
Sepa style of holding public hearings
Environment lawyer Zubair Abro, who has often attended SEPA hearings, said that for one the authority had not ever said it would hold such sessions one-on-one. The other point is that Sepa it holds its public hearing at the site, if it is far flung and not easily accessible. When people can easily turn up to the construction site, such as the case with the A&Z Tower, it chooses to hold the hearings far off in Korangi. “It shows mala fide intent,” he maintained.
The purpose of these hearings is to benefit the public from that area. According to Dr. Syed Raza Gardezi of Citizens for Environment not only should Sepa announce this in banners at the site but it should also hold the hearing there in the late afternoon so that more people can take part. He has registered his objections in a letter to the DG.
Environmental activist Yasir Husain told SAMAA Digital that Sepa is discouraging public hearings for high-rise commercial projects. “The EIA is imperative in all such projects,” he said, “but mostly the consultants of that project are preparing the EIA reports and handing them to Sepa.” Sepa does this because it doesn’t have the in-house experts, which is why they rely on EIA reports prepared by the consultants who happen to also work for the builders and developers.
Even Dr Gardezi has objected to consultants preparing reports for SEPA. He emphasized that the responsibility even vet material from external consultants rested with Sepa. “Once the EIA report is uploaded on Sepa’s official website, readers assume that it has been vetted and verified in all technical aspects,” he said.
Consider this rather basic mistake that was caught by advocate Azra Iqbal who has written to the Sepa DG. The EMC-prepared EIA report for Sepa states that the tower is located in Civil Lines (UC-9). She clarified that the site falls in UC-11 Kehkashan, Clifton. The report says the tower is in a high density zone but Azra Iqbal has challenged this. At another point, the document states that the tower is residential-cum-commercial but it is actually not meant for residential purposes. “Hence the EIA report should be termed flawed because it provided the wrong information,” Azra Iqbal wrote.
Dr Gardezi pointed out that the NoCs from utility agencies, a soil investigation report and the names of the architect are missing from the report. Given that these essential documents are missing, the EIA report is incomplete. Sepa’s own 2014 law says you cannot hold a public hearing based on a defective document.
The neighbourhood around the project
A&Z Toweris purely office buildings and Zubair Abro pointed out that it is surrounded by flats. “They are constructing a 19-storey commercial building and office tower in an area where most of the projects constructed are residential,” he said.
It would make sense to consider the entire surrounding area before approving such a project. In fact, Dr Gardezi reminded the DG in his letter that despite their repeated assertions no Cumulative Impact Assessment of the entire area has been held. “The CIA is imperative to give the true picture of the impact of rampant commercialization, as opposed to the EIA study of stand-alone projects, which only give a limited scenario of the over densification in the absence of upgraded infrastructure,” he wrote.
Parking, traffic, water, sewage
The EIA report predicts parking and traffic flow congestion. “Traffic on Clifton roads has grown without a Master Plan,” it said. The roundabout at Dr Ziauddin Hospital is already congested and this needs to be factored in.
Dr Gardezi pointed out that 114 car parking spaces would not be enough for such a building. Furthermore, actual access to the front of the tower is just a 40-foot service lane. “Not all the cars will remain parked,” Dr Gardezi pointed out, “but they will move in and out of the building, and this is what causes the traffic mess. It is the movement of cars on a limited width artery that causes traffic jams.”
The EIA points out that Clifton’s residents are already suffering from water shortages and the tower’s plan for a reverse osmosis plant does not factor in that this solution will affect the soil below. The brine discharge from an RO plant leads to soil subsidence.
The tower will house generators and the EIA report warned that their smoke and noise would become a nuisance for the neighborhood.
Dr Kausar S. Khan of Green Pakistan Coalition put it quite simply: “High-rise buildings are a boon to builders. Builders must never rule our cities.”