Build by all means, but have public safety and sustainability in mind, say the rakyat

NST – 27th. November, 2009 

 

There is an urgent need to remind every Malaysian, specially those empowered to approve land development projects, to read the “Rio Declaration on Environment and Development”.

Since Malaysia had endorsed that Declaration, the question is: Have we fully walked the talk on our own shores since then?

The document essentially says that we, as human beings, are at the “centre of concerns” for sustainable development. However, the manner in which some authorities approve development projects, without giving any thought to public safety of the neighbouring residents, is a direct contravention of Principle 1.

The document’s Principle 3 is in sync with the Brundtland Commission’s definition of “sustainable development”, i.e. “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. If what we do today affects adversely the interest of our future generations, then what we are doing is clearly not sustainable development.

Principle 4 emphasies that environmental protection is an “integral part” of the development process and should never be considered apart from it. You cannot have development by sacrificing the environment.

Principle 10 is, to my mind, the most important. It demands that when the relevant authority is about to decide whether a particular development project is to be approved or not, citizen engagement in that decision-making process is a vital prerequisite.

The painful history surrounding the proposed development of Bukit Gasing shows the dismal level of understanding or commitment by the relevant approving authority in upholding the principle of citizen engagement.

In a meeting held in November 2007, residents living around Bukit Gasing were assured by Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) planning director Mahadi Che Ngah that they would be given “a public hearing to air their concerns on the safety and environmental aspects” of the Bukit Gasing project. That assurance was in keeping with the Rio Declaration.

However, when some 300 residents from Taman Petaling, Gasing Indah and Gasing Heights Condominium then petitioned for a public hearing, DBKL responded (in a letter of Dec 31, 2007) that such a public hearing would be “against the rules and regulations”.

Their explanation was that under the Planning (Development) Regulations 1970 of the Federal Territory (Planning) Act 1982, public hearings are held only if the proposed development project involves changes in “population density” or “land use”.

Authorities are urged to consider public safety before they approve hillside developments.

The residents were told that since Gasing Meridian Sdn Bhd’s application did not involve increased density or change in land use, a public hearing cannot be held.

If it is true that there are such rules in the Federal Territory, then there is an urgent need to review them. If not, do not talk of sustainable planning at all.

Incidentally, this year’s theme for the World Town Planning Day was “Sustainable Development – People First”.

On April 24, 2009, the High Court granted the residents leave to challenge the development order previously granted (on Oct 2, 2007) by the then KL mayor Datuk Ab Hakim Borhan.

Commenting on the good news then, joint Action Committee for Bukit Gasing spokesman Victor Oorjitham said it took the residents 20 months and several hearings in court before they were granted “leave” by the court to challenge the development order.

To understand the significance of this “leave” (or permission to challenge the approval) by the High Court, look again at Principle 10 which states there must be “effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings”.

Explaining the residents’ objective in taking the fight to the courts, Oorjitham said, “No development of Bukit Gasing should be permitted because of the steep gradient on parts of the hill and unsuitable soil structure.” If development is allowed on the slope, there would be “landslides affecting the life and property of thousands of residents living close to the hill”. That is, of course, Principle 1 read together with Principle 4.

Following the High Court decision favouring the residents, DBKL and the developer appealed to the Court of Appeal.

On Nov 20, 2009, the Court of Appeal (by a majority decision 2 :1) dismissed the appeal in favour of the residents. This means they can now resume their battle in court, to challenge the development order given by DBKL to the developer.

How that substantive fight will end, only time will tell. By then, we will know whether the 27 Rio Principles have any meaning at all here.

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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