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Stuck between a rock and a hard place

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Dry Bulk,

Last year the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) banned manual handling of coal at Karachi Port Trust (KPT) while deciding on a human rights petition filed with it some years ago. The reason it cited was that this activity was creating pollution harmful both for the marine life and human health, especially in the surrounding areas. The people living close to KPT, especially the residents of adjoining areas and civil society, were the most vocal in raising their concerns about this issue.

Their complaint was that during the manual offloading of coal there would be ambient coal dust all over the place and pieces of coal would also fall in sea water. They wanted an end to this activity because their exposure to coal dust would cause diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, blocking of airways etc.

Once left in the open at the port before its reloading on to vehicles, the coal would keep on polluting the surrounding atmosphere and the sea breeze would carry the coal dust over longer distances.

Following the decision, coal handling activity was discontinued at KPT and shifted to Port Qasim where Pakistan International Bulk Terminal (PIBT) – the country’s first dedicated dirty cargo terminal as coal and clinker handling facility – had started operations in May 2017. At the terminal, there is no manual handling and the coal is offloaded with the help of modern cranes transported to the storage yard via conveyor belts. Sewage treatment plants, dust suppression system, water sprinklers and wind fends are some other facilities the plant can boast of. At the moment, PIBT is handling all the coal arriving at the port by ship.

No doubt all this has helped control pollution at the port but there is one major concern that needs to be addressed at the earliest. There are increasing complaints that though the people working at the port and those living around it have won relief, those along the route of vehicles carrying coal upcountry have become highly vulnerable. The fact that most of the imported coal is being transported upcountry by open trucks and the delay by Pakistan Railways in laying the required infrastructure to offer a safe and environmentally-friendly transport perturb many.

Environmentalist Sardar Asif Ali Sial urges the government to shift coal transportation business to railways and make necessary arrangements in this regard. Sial says when it is transported through trucks the coal dust flies and pieces of coal fallout from their edges polluting the whole path and its surroundings. “This also results in wear and tear of roads because the truck owners tend to overload their vehicles to increase their earnings,” he adds.

Furthermore, Sial says, road transportation on trucks modified by local bodybuilders to increase haulage/carrying capacity is risky because such vehicles are prone to accidents especially when taking sharp turns.

Muhammad Kashif, who is involved in customs clearing business, complains coal transportation through trucks takes much longer than it would take via train. The government announced to build rail transport facility for coal importers at Port Qasim but there is no breakthrough so far, "importers have no option but to avail road transport."

Coal consumption and import is rampantly increasing. Every year, cement companies import 8 million t of coal, whereas power companies import 12 million t. Out of total coal import, around 60% is transported up north and there is no better option than to use railways track for this purpose.

CEO PIBT, Sharique Siddiqui says that transportation coal from PIBT and other terminals to different destinations across the country through trucks is a major challenge.

Using railroads is the best way to transport goods with a reduced carbon footprint. It will not only address environmental challenges, but will open a revenue stream for Pakistan railways also. PIBT’s policy makers must realise that road infrastructure is unnecessarily burdened by coal trucking from Karachi to upcountry. This burden of coal trucking should ideally be shifted onto the Railways network for the benefit of optimal logistics.

Siddiqui shares that Pakistan Railways announced in 2017 that it would provide rail connectivity to PIBT and hopes to see this happen soon. This facility is available at the Port Qasim Authority (PQA) Marginal Wharf for coal transportation for Sahiwal power plant and needs to be extended to PIBT Terminal as well.

It is right time the government acts in this direction and increases share of Pakistan Railways in cargo movement, especially coal transportation, across the country. It is also in line with the Vision 2025 that calls for rise in share of the Pakistan Railways from 4% - 20%.

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