Environmental pollution calls for action

Pakistan Jute Mills Association (PJMA) issued a press statement the other day citing environmental issues to urge the government to replace polypropylene bags with jute bags for storage of all food grains, including wheat. Polypropylene, said PJMA, contains several harmful substances and is not biodegradable with the result that when dumped on soil or in water its plastic compounds cause long-term pollution of land and aquatic atmosphere, adding to environmental degradation. Indeed the jute millers’ body has its own interests to promote, but it also has an important point to make vis-à-vis environmental pollution that affects human health as well as the flora and fauna.

Sadly, cleaner environment remains one of the least governmental concerns even where pollutants are known to cause serious damage. A case in point is the uncontrolled dumping of industrial effluents in soil as well canals, rivers and the sea. According to experts, 80 percent of the toxic discharge is released into water bodies, and the rest 20 percent goes directly into the soil from where it finds its way into underground aquifers lacing drinking water with hazardous substances. There have been some reported instances too in Karachi and Lahore where discharge from sewage system and factories was being used to irrigate vegetables and crops, entering the food chain. All these activities have gone on despite the fact that under Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations, industries are required to maintain effluent treatment plants for the safe disposal of waste. It is worthwhile to note that the export-oriented industries dutifully observe the regulations because foreign buyers keep a strict check on environmental safety standards as well as working conditions. Understandably, treatment plants are expensive, and an impractical proposition for small factories owners. But they can, and should, pool their resource to install common facilities. They ignore their responsibility because they can get away with it.

As we have been pointing out in these columns before, existing environmental laws are too weak and implementation mechanisms grossly under-resourced and under-staffed. Violators can get easy acquittal from environmental tribunals on payment of small fines. Protection of environment being a provincial subject, therefore all provincial governments need to take a serious view of the issue within the wider context of public health and ecological conservation. They must review and revise relevant laws to ensure all small and big polluters take necessary measures for the safe disposal of toxic effluents. Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority, responsible for formulation and promulgation of national standards, also needs, as per its assigned duties and functions, to get its act together and see to it that standardisation policies are implemented and consumer interests protected effectively.