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When heads would have rolled...

12/03/2005 NST-PROP By Salleh Buang

I HAVE been flooded with e-mail and SMSes for the past week from friends and readers around the country who are keeping a close watch on the environmental tragedy that has unfolded in Shah Alam, Selangor. Many wanted to know: Is the verdict in, or is the jury still deliberating?


My reply: "To be completely honest with you, I do not know." On the one hand, we have expressions of dismay, sorrow and restrained anger from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who, as we all know, took an aerial tour over the devastated area last week to see for himself what actually happened.


Previous media reports had quoted the PM as saying he would continue to keep his eye on the Selangor Government and its Menteri Besar, Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo, to ensure that the steps to be taken to resolve the problem are carried out.


In my mind, implicit in this remark is the principle that since this tragedy took place in Selangor, its head should answer. On the other hand, we have local dailies quoting the embattled Menteri Besar as saying, most emphatically, that "Semuanya OK" (Everything's all right).


He was also reported as saying "there is definitely no encroachment" into the Bukit Cahaya Seri Alam Agricultural Park.


Insisting that the State Government is not at fault, Dr Khir put the blame for the environmental catastrophe squarely on the local authority.


A newspaper headlined this piece of news as "Shah Alam City Council (MBSA) blamed for fiasco" and quoted Dr Khir as saying that it is the city council's fault for failing to monitor development in environmentally sensitive areas such as Bukit Cahaya.


"It's a bitter experience for all of us," he had said.


Other local dailies quoted a very senior official of the local authority as saying it would be unfair to blame it solely because the developers which had been alienated the State land were big-time, seasoned developers.


They should therefore know better about the requirements of the law and should have complied with them.


It is also unfair of the public, the MBSA official said, to expect the local authority to carry out continuous monitoring and supervision of such seasoned developers. What it can do is merely undertake a cursory (or minimum) level of monitoring and supervision because it simply does not have the manpower or capacity to do anything more.


So went this official's argument: If anything should go wrong as a result of inadequate supervision and monitoring of development work, it is the developers' fault, not the local authority's.


Dr Khir, viewed "live" during prime time evening news last week, took great pains to tell his host (who was clearly very partial and deferential to Dr Khir) that Selangor had been very serious in implementing Local Agenda 21 and practising sustainable development.


However, I cannot agree with this contention. There are records to show that Selangor has failed to live up to the principles of Local Agenda 21 in several instances, and has cast aside the doctrine of sustainable development.


Those interested in these details will find abundant literature in cyberspace about "development activities" in the State, carried out in locations such as Templer Park and Ulu Yam.


Back to the question of whether the verdict is in: Apart from laying the blame squarely on the local authority, Dr Khir also blamed the developers, and announced that court action would be taken against several of them.


Acknowledging that many of these companies had carried out earthworks even before getting the necessary approval from the relevant authority, Dr Khir said notices had been issued to these developers to cease operations immediately.


One newspaper reported that nine companies would be charged in court, while six others were being investigated.


Apart from commencing criminal proceedings against these companies, Dr Khir also announced that "with immediate effect, all local authorities in the State will no longer have the power to approve any development projects near environmentally-sensitive places".


A technical development committee, chaired by the State Secretary, would decide whether to approve such developments or not. The members of this committee would include representatives of the Anti- Corruption Agency, police as well as various Federal and State department heads.


With the setting up of this new committee, all applications for development projects in places such as Templer Park, Zoo Negara and the Paya Indah Wetlands were frozen.


"Be assured that not a single developer will be able to escape punishment if their irresponsible action has caused environmental damage to the natural surroundings of the agriculture park," Dr Khir said.


On why action was not taken against these developers much earlier, before the extensive damage was caused, Dr Khir's response was to blame lack of enforcement on the part of the MBSA and other Government agencies.


The local authority "does not have the expertise to carry out comprehensive enforcement", he explained.


To sum up, the position taken by the Selangor Government is as follows:


First, the State is not guilty. The present administration cannot be faulted for the land alienation exercise carried out by a previous administration.


Since the land had been properly alienated, its owners were only acting within their rights to seek development approval or planning permission from the local authority.


Such approvals and permissions are within the jurisdiction of the local authority, since it is the local planning body.


Provided procedures are followed and rules observed, the development approvals are also in order.
Second, this environmental tragedy is due to a grievous failure in the monitoring and supervision process. The relevant local authority had failed to ensure that all the terms and conditions imposed on the developers had been fully complied with. The local authority is therefore at fault, and consequently, its powers are now clipped.


To fill the vacuum, a new high-powered "technical development committee" is vested with the necessary powers. While this can easily be done, administratively, I am not too sure about its status under the relevant laws.


Third, the verdict does not end there. The companies that had caused the environmental devastation are also clearly at fault. They must therefore be taken to court and suitably punished if found guilty.


Several quarters, including the Bar Council, have since raised questions on this point: Whether the punishment provided for in the old, outdated statutes are adequate. Nevertheless, criminal proceedings should continue.

 

Fourth, apart from the Shah Alam City Council, other Government departments must also share the blame.


Dr Khir said: "I am not only dissatisfied with the enforcement of the city council but also that of the heads of departments, who obviously did not make adequate inspection of the projects surrounding the agriculture park." Simply put, certain people did not do their jobs.


When I was in Government service in the 70s, if an incident such as this occurred, heads would roll. My boss (the late Attorney-General) taught me that "while powers and duties can be delegated, ultimate responsibility can never be delegated. It still lies with the head".


I wonder whether things have changed that much since then.


Salleh Buang is senior advisor of a company specialising in competitive intelligence. He is also active in training and public speaking and can be reached at sallehbuang@hotmail.com

 

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