A Prayer for the Dying: Environmental Injustice in Pakistan

by Imran Khalid


News stories about environmental catastrophes in Pakistan are fleeting in that they make the news and then are resigned to the dustbins of afterthought. Such is the case, it seems, with the death of ten people including a child near a Sugar Mill in Dera Ismail Khan. It was reported that a girl child fell unconscious due to the toxic fumes emanating from a drain and fell into it.  Her mother and immediate family members jumped in to rescue her.  What followed was a tragic sequence of events, which led to a total of 15 people following the child into the drain. The sludge coming from the factory was toxic enough to incapacitate and ultimately take the lives of nearly a dozen individuals and send many to the hospital.  Protests led to an attempt to set fire to the factory. Nearly four weeks later, we know nothing more about the child or her family or any of the other would be rescuers who lost their lives.   Nor do we know of the nature of the toxic effluent emanating from the factory.


Incidents of industrial malpractice and environmental negligence regularly repeat themselves in this country.  In 2012, nearly 270 workers died as a textile factory caught fire in Karachi.  The factory, against all relevant legislations, had closed off all exits except one, which resulted in the workers becoming fuel for the raging inferno.  Invariably, the casualties in such instances are laborers who work on daily wages to support their family members.  Poverty forces people to hold onto dangerous jobs even as the owners flaunt environmental, health and safety regulations.  The Federal and Provincial Environmental Protection Agencies lack resources to regularly inspect all industrial enterprises.   The official responsible for monitoring health and safety laws are amenable to bribes and look the other way when face to face with violations.  The factory owners for their part look for short cuts wherever possible knowing fully well that any relevant laws are rarely implemented.  Additionally, environmental issues are still seen as a hindrance to development by the top political leadership.  This remains the case despite numerous studies showing the health and environmental costs of such negligence approaching billions of rupees annually.


The significant growth in population in Pakistan has meant that the factories on the outskirts of communities are now a part of residential settings.  Even Industrial Estates have seen a growth in population in adjacent areas as people move closer to them in search of jobs.   Improper waste management, wastewater management,  and air pollution leads to long term health problems for the residents as well as workers.  The most detriment is caused to children whose growth is impacted by daily exposure to polluted water and air.    Pakistan’s water resources are limited to begin with yet, increasingly, they are being used as conduits for waste deposition.    What used to be clean water streams are now odorous and toxic channels of industrial wastes, ready to devour the next child who might play too close to them.  Pakistanis, the eternal believers in fatalism are only too keen to become such victims to “Allah ki Marzi” or God’s will.

However, all is not lost.  The National Conservation Strategy completed under the auspices of IUCN serves as a seminal document when it comes to all issues environmental.  Over twenty years after it was released, it remains an essential guide on protection of the environment and its human dimensions.   Following Pakistan’s lead, the document was used as a template by other developing countries to form their own Conservation Strategies. Using that as a starting point and the National Environmental Quality Standards as legal doctrines, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Council (PEPC) whose head is the Prime Minister should let it be known that development at the cost of human dignity and suffering would not be permitted.  That the PEPC has only met a handful of times since its inception in the 1980s speaks to the apathy towards environmental governance in the country. While Devolution accorded greater responsibilities to the Provinces in terms of environmental protection, it is the Prime Minister’s office that will have to play a lead role in determining our future direction.   One only needs to the think of the girl and her family and their would be rescuers to understand the urgency of this matter.


 The current debate on environmental issues in the country invariably turns to climate change since that is the hot topic worldwide.  Even the Ministry of Environment has been changed to Ministry of Climate Change.  Yet, progress on climate change mitigation and adaptation cannot take place in a vacuum.  The progress cannot take place without addressing issues of environmental injustice, which are deeply entrenched in our society.  When the children of the poor are picking through hospital waste, blood bags and used needles, and when the working poor have to traverse toxic streams to and from work, and when children in open air schools have to breathe in polluted air talk of anything else remains just that, wasteful rhetoric.   It might win us plaudits in New York or Geneva or wherever else the mighty gather to set the global agenda but at home, where things truly matter, such talk is merely, to quote the musician Seal, a prayer for the dying.



The writer is a PhD candidate in Environmental Policy at SUNY-ESF at Syracuse, NY.   He tweets at @imran2u.

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