Jabban, a small town in Malakand district, was once famous for its pleasant air and its scenic views. Water from the Swat River gushed down in streams near the town, and the British built a hydro power plant here in 1938.
Now the residents of the town and communities in nearby Dargai are paying a heavy price for the increase in economic activity in this part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Rapid industrialisation has put the community at the risk of toxic air pollution. Medical and environment experts have termed the situation “alarming” as the number of cases of asthma, chest infections, and allergies in the local population have increased in the past few years. But many are afraid to speak up about the public health risks due to pressure from the influential and politically well-connected factory owners behind the unchecked industrialisation.
“Around 80 percent of the patients in the tehsil hospital and private clinics are diagnosed with chronic respiratory diseases, directly linked with environmental pollution,” an area doctor told Media for Transparency on the condition of anonymity. “Since the last two years, the number of patients with chest infections and asthma have increased in Malakand.”
The doctor said industrial activity near the residential areas of Dargai and its surroundings have most likely caused an increase in air pollution. He said he was considering moving his own family out of the area.
“The local community of Dargai is living in an extremely polluted environment,” the doctor said. “If proper measures were not taken immediately, then it can lead to a major environmental disaster in the future.”
It is difficult to back up the doctor’s claims with official numbers because the Dargai tehsil hospital does not keep dis-aggregated data on respiratory ailments, apparently due to limited resources. However, the hospital was kept busy in 2019 with 138,455 patients and an additional 134,177 visits to the emergency. In the absence of health data, anecdotal evidence suggests that the area doctor’s assertions should not be ignored.
According to the 2017-18 data from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bureau of Statistics, Malakand district has a total of 77 industrial units.
Dr. Muhammad Nafees, a Professor of Environment Sciences at the University of Peshawar, said the steel mills in Malakand are of a category called re-rolling industry. It is a type of mills that rolls metal to give it the desired shape and thickness. Such mills use tyre and coal as actionable fuel.
“The burning of coal and tyre releases particulate matter, which is considered as dangerous air pollution,” Nafees said. “After spreading in the air for miles, it causes allergies, chest infections, and respiratory diseases.”
He said particulate matter can be controlled easily by installing modern air pollution reduction systems but some industrialists are reluctant in adopting the technology.
“Instead of labour and environment, their priority is making money,” Nafees said. “The cost of such measures is little but they don’t understand its worth.”
He said the environmentalists are not against the industrialisation but every industrial unit should be held accountable and must follow the standards laid down by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Environment Protection Agency (EPA).
“A majority of the mills face fines and cases in the environment tribunals when they are found in violation of the EPA standards,” Nafees said. “The owners take such matters into a higher court where they take advantage of labour law, which leads to a clash of legislation.”
He said the mill owners exploit the laws to win the pollution cases registered against them.
Dr. Abid Jameel, focal person and professor of Medical Oncology at Hayatabad Medical Complex Peshawar, is the head of a free cancer treatment programme run by the provincial government. Dr. Jameel said cancer centres in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa see around 30,000 patients each year. According to data available with him for his hospital, 73 cancer cases were registered from Malakand. It is unclear if the cancer cases are linked with environmental factors such as air pollution.
The Dargai area doctor said steel mills are not following EPA standards to store waste materials, which mix with air and water and are consumed by humans and aquatic life. Arsenic in the pollutants can cause cancer in humans, the doctor said.
“In one year, on the basis of suspicion, we have referred a large number of patients to other hospitals,” the doctor said. “After the investigations, cancer related to chest, stomach, blood, and lymphoma have been diagnosed.”
Area residents have also been complaining of skin diseases, most likely caused by their exposure to industrial waste in their immediate surroundings.
Haji Bahr-e Karam, 54, is a former councillor of the Dargai Union Council. Since 2010, he has had skin issues. He has sought treatment from skin specialists in Peshawar to no avail. Finally he said he found a doctor in Islamabad who was able to help him.
“When the doctor examined my skin, the first thing he asked me was about my residence, “ Karam said. “He told me it seems you are living in a polluted environment.”
Karam said he told the doctor he lives near a steel mill, which has been operational in the residential areas for the past 12 years.
He said his brother also has a skin condition and he has heard of others in the area, including a school teacher, who developed skin problems.
Karam said the doctor has advised him to migrate to another district.
“I have spent my childhood here; grown up here; we are living in Malakand from generations,” he said. “It is very hard for me to leave my ancestors village.”
To stop the steel mill’s operation, the local community has arranged several meetings with the Assistant Commissioner (AC) in Dargai. After several meetings, Karam said they contacted the Deputy Commissioner, who instructed the AC to examine the steel mill furnace standards.
“The mill is still operational,” Karam said. “All the efforts of the local community have been wasted.”
He alleged that the mill owner arranged a lavish lunch for the community elders and provided a handsome amount to the landowners who provided land for the mill to buy their support.
“The local community has sealed their mouths because these steel mills provided employment,” Karam said. “During the construction phase, we have opposed steel mills and suggested to set up ghee and flour mills instead.”
Locals claim that mill owners have used their strong connections to set up industries in residential areas despite protests from the community. Residents have also taken mill owners to court.
Kabir Khan, a resident of Sakhakot, filed a lawsuit when construction on a steel mill started near his home five years ago. When the civil court rules against him, he took the matter to the Peshawar High Court.
“First I filed a lawsuit in Batkhela,” Khan said. “The court gave a stay order but the owner went to an additional court where they removed the stay.”
He said the mill owner submitted an affidavit in the additional court to install a dry air pollution system – equipment which collects the pollutants and emissions during the chemical reaction. The court allowed the owner to resume construction. Mr. Khan then got a temporary stay from the high court.
“I had hired four lawyers, two at the lower court and two in the high court,” he said. “I belong to a middle class family and fought the case in the court according to my financial capacity.”
He said he spent Rs. 2 million on the legal proceedings but could not win the case. Finally he gave up.
Khan said he was left alone in the legal battle even though the mill’s pollution would affect the community.
“At one stage, the court needed eye-witnesses,” he said. “In my entire community, no one agreed to appear before the court.”
Before the lawsuit, Khan said he had registered complaints with the EPA. At that time, the law had not been extended to Malakand, so he found the EPA official uncooperative.
In February, the steel mill he had fought against started operation. But fate intervened on the side of the residents when the district administration shut it down.
“When we inspected the mill, it had installed the air pollution system but we sealed its operation because it did not have a no-objection certificate (NOC),” Abdullah, the additional Assistant Commissioner of Dargai Tehsil, said.
The NOC is an administrative requirement and does not mean the mill will be closed permanently.
Most of the steel mills are located in Dargai Union Council, which has a population of 33,583 residents according to the 2017 census.
An official in the Swat regional office of the EPA said, on condition of anonymity, that seven steel mills have been operational since 2010 in the residential area of Dargai. The provincial environment protection law was passed in 2014. But even with the law, Malakand – where Dargai is located – was part of the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas. This meant provincial laws could not be applied there. In other words, there was no law to stop the mill construction in residential areas of Dargai. The EPA official said according to the rules, factory owners must get an NOC letter before beginning construction. He claimed the district administration must have allowed the owners to establish steel mills there.
In 2015, a resident Shumail Ahmed Butt filed a petition against Ali steel mill in the Peshawar High Court. The EPA report submitted to the court indicated that houses were found on the east and west of the mill. The north side was surrounded by residential area, a girls’ high school, a madrassa, a primary school, and a basic health unit. On the south side, there was a canal and a children’s medical centre.
The court dismissed the petition but it did order the provincial government to expedite the environmental law to Malakand and in the meanwhile, ordered the Malakand Deputy Commissioner to ensure preventive and precautionary measures.
In April 2018, the local community of Kharki area of Dargai filed a petition against the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government at the Peshawar High Court. In the petition, they claimed that 21 factories were operating without proper NOC of EPA in their area and spreading pollution in the residential area.
“Steel mills along with 10 other factories were operating in the residential area without taking NOC from EPA,” Javed Ali Ghani, the counsel in the petition, said. “Malakand district Deputy Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner allowed the mill’s owners to set up the factories.”
The court ordered the provincial government to close the mills. But steel mills along with other factories are still operating in the area.
“I have advised the client that despite court order if the factories are still functional, they should submit contempt of court appeal,” Mr. Ghani said. “Unfortunately my client didn’t follow the case.”
The provincial government finally extended the environment protection law to Malakand in 2018, the EPA official said.
“So far we have not issued new NOC to any factory in Malakand district,” he said.
In May 2019, Commissioner Malakand Division Riaz Khan Mehsud sealed all seven steel mills for violating environmental law.
He made the reopening of the steel mills conditional on getting an NOC from the EPA.
“These open furnaces are distributing cancer and other epidemic diseases in the community and the administration would not let them compromise on the public health and safety, and anyone interested to run industry should install the mechanical unit being suggested by EPA to filter and control the emission of hazardous and nitrogenous gases,” the handout from the commissioner’s office stated.
The owner of the steel mills challenged the commissioner’s notice in the Peshawar High Court. EPA officials maintained that after the court order, the mills are back in operation.
The EPA official from the Swat regional office said the EPA conducts an initial environmental examination and environmental impact assessment. If the report is satisfactory, the agency issues an NOC to set up the factory.
He said they have been monitoring steel mills and other factory plants after the law was extended to Malakand.
On the EPA’s instruction, five mills have installed Dry Air Pollution System, he said. The system is often called a “pollution control plant” in factory-speak. For pollution monitoring, the EPA instructed the mill owners to install CCTV camera at pollution control plants.
The official said the industrialists are slowly implementing the EPA law.
“Most of them have installed pollution control plants,“ he said. “As compared to the past, pollution has decreased.”
He said a case was registered recently against the Ali and Sher steel mills in Dargai.
“After examination, faults were identified in the dry air pollution system,” the official said. “Holes were identified in the pollution control plant and Sher steel mill was taken to the environment tribunal, which ordered the formation of a judicial commission to probe the matter.”
The verdict of the case is expected soon, based on the report submitted by the judicial commission.
Muhammad Shoaib, the owner of the Sher steel mill, claims that the EPA registered a case because a CCTV camera was not working at the pollution control system. He said the local community was incited to protest against the mill by a few people for their personal interests. He said there was no population residing near the industrial unit when it was established and the district administration had approved their NOC.
The local community had also filed a petition in the high court against the Sher steel mill for emissions that threaten human health and life.
Shoaib said he took the case to the Supreme Court, which he claimed allowed them to operate in a verdict issued on 12 December 2019.
“EPA may issue proper NOC to those Industrial Units who are functioning without any NOC, “ the Supreme Court order stated. “We also direct the EPA that in case NOC issued, the said Industrial Units shall be regularly monitored and in case any violation is reported, the non-confirming shall not be permitted to carry on its activities.”
The order also stated that setting up of new industries and expansion of existing industries will not be allowed except “where the government itself declares an area as an industrial area”.
Following the order the EPA issued operational NOCs on 13 February to the mills for only 60 days on trial basis, subject to terms and conditions.
“The proponent shall install proper Pollution control system and bring the effluents, emissions, noise, and other waste discharges within National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS). During the trial basis operation, EPA Laboratory shall visit the Unit for checking the compliance of NEQ and the case will be processed on basis of the visit report for full-time operational approval,” the terms and conditions of the EPA NOC read.
Pir Musavir Khan, a Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) from Dargai, said those units that have NOC and installed pollution control plants are allowed to work.
“EPA has cleared them and they are operational in the non-Industrial Estate,” Pir Musavir Khan, who belongs to the ruling party Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf, said.
The local community has complained that some steel mills are operating at night and spreading pollution in the area.
Pir Musavir Khan said that District and Tehsil administration frequently examine their furnaces.
Residents, however, have complained that steel mills operate at night.
Pir Musavir Khan said recently a steel mill was closed for being operational at night and on the violation of spreading pollution and for not installing pollution reduction plant.
“I have been informed that a few factories are operating in the area without NOC,” he said. “The provincial government will take action against those for not having proper documents.”
He said the provincial government has asked the owners to shift their factories into the industrial zone.
“Few of the factory owners have complained of non-availability of land in the industrial zone,” he said. “To respond to the owners, the ministry of industries is planning to buy more land to accommodate them in the industrial zone.”
He said he has taken a special interest in the matter and has arranged several successful meetings with Abdul Karim Khan, Adviser to the Chief Minister for industries. He said the provincial government is committed to shifting the factories to the industrial zone.
“I have arranged some meetings with mill owner and requested them to shift the mills from residential area to an industrial zone,” Pir Musavir Khan said. “If they don’t follow our instructions, the provincial government will take action according to law.”
However, Shoaib said a steel mill operation is not allowed in Malakand small industrial estate.
According to the draft of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Industrial Policy 2016, the Small Industrial Estate in Dargai was allocated 245 kanals of land. The total cost of the project was Rs. 452 million. In the draft, it was suggested that operation and commercial activities would be started in 2018-19.
Shoaib said he and other Industrialists have purchased the land where they will soon set up their new units.
Abullah, the Additional Assistant Commissioner of Dargai, said industrial units that had already set up outside the industrial estate would remain there but the administration would inspect their pollution plants, and will bound them to run the operation under EPA standards.