PAKISTAN is staring climate change in the face, and mitigating its fallout is arguably an even more urgent battle than winning the fight against corruption. As per the most recent rankings on the Climate Global Risk Index, Pakistan comes in eighth among the countries most impacted by climate change between 2000 and 2019.
On Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the spring plantation 2021 campaign that covers 51 Miyawaki urban forest sites in Lahore, with the first such forest being planted in Jilani park. On the occasion, Mr Khan exhorted his fellow Pakistanis to join his government’s countrywide 10 Billion Tree Tsunami Programme to help cut down smog and reverse environmental pollution. Speaking of Lahore, the premier said that one consequence of the city’s expansion in all directions was that it had lost 70pc of its forest cover. The urban forest campaign’s slogan — “Plant before it’s too late” — captures the urgency of the situation.
The loss of forest cover exacerbates the effects of climate change, opening the door to flash floods and soil erosion, thereby lowering crop yields, destroying local economies and disrupting food supply patterns on a wider scale. Pakistan has only 5.7pc forest cover as opposed to the recommended 25pc. At between 0.2 and 0.5pc, this country has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world and the second highest in the region after Afghanistan. Expanding urbanisation, industrialisation, an increasing population and a powerful, politically well-connected timber mafia form a lethal combination that is stripping the land of its precious forest cover.
The PTI launched the Billion Tree Tsunami project in response to global warming soon after coming to power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2013. That green initiative, which the government claimed in 2019 had led to a 6.3pc increase in the country’s forest cover, was followed by the even more ambitious 10 Billion Tree Tsunami Programme. These efforts have brought into sharp focus environmental concerns that were earlier largely ignored by political parties in this country. The recalibration of priorities was sorely needed and has been widely appreciated in a world racing to meet the challenge posed by climate change. Other leaders have started similar campaigns and the World Economic Forum has launched the One Trillion Trees Initiative.
The massive scale of the tree plantation project has, perhaps inevitably, given rise to questions as to its effectiveness and viability. Last year, NAB approved four investigations into the provincial-level Billion Tree Tsunami project on allegations of misuse of authority, lack of survival of plants, embezzlement of funds, etc. Critics also point out that the timber mafia has managed to continue its illegal work unhindered because the implementation of the law is lax and the lobbies linked with the racket are extremely powerful. Without plugging this gap, tree plantation drives — however important in their own right — are unlikely to achieve their full potential.
Punjab’s LG crisis
YET another twist has been given to the prevailing debate on the local government elections in Punjab, spawning serious doubts about the provincial administration’s plans to organise the promised polls any time soon. The government’s decision to issue an ordinance repealing the Punjab Village Panchayats and Neighbourhood Councils Act, 2019, caught the Election Commission of Pakistan as well as the public by surprise. The Punjab Local Government (Amendment) Ordinance, 2021, reduces the number of village panchayats and neighbourhood councils from 25,238 to 8,000. Consequently, the ECP was forced to withdraw its Feb 4 notification about the timeliness of different activities for the delimitation of villages and neighbourhoods in Punjab. The notification was issued by the ECP after a clear undertaking by the government that it wanted LG elections by September in phases. The amendment ordinance has changed the shape of the LG system, rendering all delimitations and arrangements done so far ineffective. The ECP had filed a reply with the Supreme Court earlier this month, saying the LG elections in Punjab will be held in three phases in June, July and August. The schedule now appears difficult to follow. According to a report that quotes anonymous ECP officials, the Election Commission may challenge the Punjab government’s amendment ordinance in court, which would be unprecedented.
Chances are that the provincial government has amended the act to reduce the number of village and neighbourhood councils in order to make the entire exercise of conducting elections less cumbersome. Yet the secrecy with which the ordinance was issued just days after the government agreed to the ECP plan for holding elections before September is sufficient to raise doubts regarding its strategy for the restoration of local democracy in Punjab in the near future. It is a fact that the ruling PTI, which had promised to give the province a strong LG system to strengthen democracy at the lowest tier, has consistently delayed elections ever since it rolled back the previously PML-N-dominated local institutions. To counter criticism, the administration has come up with weak arguments, sometimes blaming the ECP for the delay. But people are aware that the PTI’s falling popularity graph — a result of the poor performance of the provincial administration that hasn’t delivered on electoral promises, internal rifts, and fears of the opposition PML-N emerging victorious — may be holding it back from going ahead with local elections. The question is: for how long can it drag its feet?