Mass transit projects increasing air pollution in Lahore

Published: May 4, 2017
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A labourer drinks water as smokes rise from a chimney of a brick factory. PHOTO: REUTERS

A labourer drinks water as smokes rise from a chimney of a brick factory. PHOTO: REUTERS

A labourer drinks water as smokes rise from a chimney of a brick factory. PHOTO: REUTERS The writer is an MPhil student at the Lahore School of Economics’ Graduate Institute of Development Studies

Air pollution has enmeshed the city of Lahore in its vicious claws primarily due to the ill-planned construction of mass transit projects like Lahore Orange Line Metro Train. Prior to this, the Lahore Metro Bus, which gobbled up Rs30 billion, was considered a bane because it was supposedly executed for the sake of gaining a bigger vote bank for the May 2013 elections. Even after its implementation, one can see no amelioration in terms of incessant traffic congestion in Lahore or air pollution — hence it can be equated to a white elephant! Basically undertaking massive-scale projects such as the construction of rapid transit systems, if marred by loopholes, result in heavy socio-ecological costs that are borne by marginalised groups and communities. This can be clearly observed with the ongoing construction of the Lahore Orange Line Metro Train Project.

Rs112m tax exemption for OLMT affected people

The Orange Line Train (OLT) extends over a route of 27 km covering a total of 26 stations ranging from Dera Gujjran (Raiwind Road) to Ali Town (GT Road). Out of these, 24 stations are elevated while two are underground. Bascially, this project was initiated with a signed memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Pakistan and China in May 2014. Financing was secured in December 2015 when China’s Exim Bank agreed to provide a soft loan of Rs165 billion for the project. Originally the completion of this project required 27 months but now it is expected to be completed by October 2019.

As you enter Lahore, you are flabbergasted to see the city buzzing with streams of heavy traffic.

This is the main reason which is leading towards increasing air pollution hence posing a severe threat to the health of citizens. There is no doubt that Lahore is one of the largest metropolitan cities of Pakistan with a population of 18.5 million and escalating migration rates from rural and peri-urban areas. According to the 2015 figures of the Bureau of Statistics Punjab, there has been a considerable increase in motor vehicles in Lahore over the past decade resulting in grave traffic congestion which is a major contributor to air pollution. This triggered the Punjab government to undertake another mass transit project, Orange Line Train, to curb traffic congestion in the city, but you can clearly see that the situation has aggravated in terms of increasing pollution.

According to Section 6 of Anticipated Environmental Impacts and Mitigation Measures of Lahore Orange Line Metro Train, it is explicitly stated that the proposed project will lead to air pollution and an increase in health risks associated with it. If you happen to visit the construction site, you can feel a high magnitude of particulate matter in air as well as proliferating dust pollution — heaps of mud can be seen in old Anarkali. This scenario is further exacerbated by increasing population of motor vehicles. Densely populated areas like Lakshmi Chowk and the surroundings of the Shalimar Gardens are acutely hit by deteriorating air quality. Vehicular emissions (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide) are adversely affecting the environment and human health therefore jeopardising air quality, damaging materials and property via acid rain and dust pollution, retarding growth of trees and plants and leading to impairment of atmospheric visibility affecting transportation safety.

If cleared, Orange Line may be delayed by a year

Similarly these emissions are negatively influencing human health resulting in serious lung damage, respiratory diseases, heart attacks due to lack of oxygen in blood, dizziness, headaches and nausea. Basically large-scale developmental projects are executed at the expense of disrupting the environment: industries are set up on deforested lands, infrastructure is built up by excavating earth, clearing vegetation and leveling off land. In a similar way, for the construction of Orange Line train 620 trees were uprooted and massive vegetation cleared. This has also resulted in the havoc episode of smog, that we all witnessed, which had predominantly engulfed Lahore in the prior year, making thousands of people victims to severe respiratory ailments such as bronchitis and incessant asthma attacks. Other aspects of environmental degradation that are associated with this project include contamination of groundwater, soil erosion, water pollution and noise pollution which have created a synergising effect on environmental degradation and health of citizens.

Evidently, another downside of this project is that cut and cover technology is being used instead of tunnel boring. The latter one is believed to be less disruptive to the socio-ecological fabric as it accounts for meagre destruction of private property and environment. Tunnel boring technology is used across the globe — London, Paris, Delhi are a few examples — because cut and cover technology demolishes everything on the surface which is very risky and dangerous to environment as well as to the people.

Secondly, the life of a surface train is not more than 15-20 years, hence spending billions on a surface train that covers a distance of 27 kilometres and accommodates only an insignificant number of passengers is not worth pursuing.

Furthermore, Pakistan is already grappling with an energy crisis and cannot afford a train that runs on electricity. Apparently the government wants to complete the project before the next general election to garner more votes. That is probably why it is applying cut and cover technology which is less time consuming. This manifests the inefficiency of institutions and their extractive nature.

Project detractors are not against public transport, they just hate the way the project is being implemented. Marginalised communities residing in the vicinity of the construction site are being affected the most while the elite is oblivious to the crisis the construction is causing in the form of environmental degradation and displacement of communities.

Before initiating of any massive “development” project the government should conduct a cost benefit analysis that includes not only financial and economic costs but also social and ecological costs. If the benefits outweigh costs only then a certain project should be undertaken otherwise it should be discarded. However, since the project is under construction, it can’t be halted absolutely. Moreover, workers who have lost their lives during construction, people who have been displaced, heritage sites that have been destroyed, and obviously, the environment that has been ripped apart, cannot be recompensed by the local government because of its vested interests associated with the project. So what can be done under such circumstances?

Well there is a dire need to create awareness among the masses with respect to the vested interests of state, which undertakes such projects jeopardising the socio-ecological life. In Pakistan, environment is the most neglected area which is why the state has paid no heed to short- and long-term adverse effects this project will have on people in terms of contributing to the proliferation of pollution.

Is it wise to spend billions on building mass transit projects and polluting the environment when the common people are deprived of basic health facilities, education, water and sanitation system, and electricity?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2017.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Khan
    May 4, 2017 - 11:19AM

    Good write-up. Pmln is least bother about the environmental hazardous such kind of projects will wreck. Pakistani government needs to realize that the fact that the biggest threat to our survival is climatic changes which are taking place and all the other issues like water scarcity, environmental pollution are linked to it in one way or the other.Recommend

  • Sami
    May 4, 2017 - 2:06PM

    ٘Mass transit projects are considered essential for reducing pollution all over the world. This is some ground-breaking research worthy of being published in a scientific journal! #SarcasmRecommend

  • Sabreena shah
    May 4, 2017 - 4:41PM

    This article perfectly speaks about the prevalent situation of pollution and health hazard issues which are increasing day by day and need to be controlled. I guess every citizen of Pakistan is worried about all the problems mentioned in this article.this is a cry to implement good governance
    Very well written keep it up.Recommend

  • A.H.K
    May 4, 2017 - 6:02PM

    An extremely well written piece of work that has highlighted a significant issue which is being faced by people of Lahore. Construction of orange line train is causing massive increase in pollution and degradation of environment and this article clearly underlines this issue. It’s an eye opener for the people as well as for the government to atleast do a cost benefit analysis before conducting such Mass transit projects.Recommend

  • Hassan
    May 4, 2017 - 6:48PM

    Perhaps this is the first time someone shed light on impact of poor construction methods and standards on environment in Pakistan. Although, environment is least considered for the sake of infrastructure development but the consequences of negligence are clearly mentioned in the article. Supreme Court ban on New Murree project also speaks for the mounting concern on constantly deteriorating environment. More awareness is needed on environmental degradation and well researched article like this is promoting the cause in an effective manner.
    “We must leave this country a better place for our future generations.”Recommend

  • Ashas
    May 4, 2017 - 7:54PM

    A very well written oped which brings into limelight a very significant issue pertinent to ill-planned construction of mass transit system and it’s adverse impact on environment. Recommend

  • Ayesha Riaz
    May 4, 2017 - 8:03PM

    Thumbs up for such an amazing piece of work. Environment is a marginalized area which requires awareness among the masses especially in Pakistan. These mass transit projects that are being undertaken by our corrupt governments, are basically jeapordizeng the scenic nature of our country at the expense of disrupting environment. Recommend

  • Yasser
    May 8, 2017 - 5:42PM

    Very true and very timely…very few people have this insight to the disastrous impacts of this project…Apart from environmental impacts, Lahore has a history spread over thousands of years…instead of digging through those layers of history we have buried it under heavy layers of concrete…for an ORANGE DRAGON to run over it.
    Very well written…Recommend

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