(Petaling Jaya, Saturday): The people of Miri have received a very raw deal for the past month, abandoned by both the Federal and Sarawak State Governments when Miri was plunged into a haze city, with grave short, medium and long-term hazards to the health, life and environment of the people of Miri and surrounding areas.
The Air Pollution Index (API) for Miri at 8 a.m. yesterday was the shuddering 987, the worst API ever registered in the country, as the worst API recorded in Kuching was 839 on Sept. 23 during the state of emergency declared on 19th September, after its API reached what was described as a "frightening level" of 658. The API reading for Miri at 9 a.m. yesterday, based on 24-hour average tabulation, was 541.
The people of Miri are fully entitled to feel very aggrieved of being abandoned, for if the API of Kuala Lumpur had risen as high as 987, the whole government would have gone into an emergency footing!
Unlike the national haze disaster last year, when there was an attempt to involve the public to deal with the environmental catastrophe and some government leaders even blame the people for not being sufficiently conscious to the hazards of the haze disaster, there appears to be a conspiracy of silence in the current haze disaster in northern Sarawak and Sabah to play down the gravity of the problem. After I had issued a statement on Wednesday expressing the unhappiness of the people of Sabah at the attempts by the Federal and Sabah State Government for downplaying the severity of the haze problem in Sabah State despite the grave health hazards and visibility problems, the Sabah Chief Minister, Datuk Yong Teck Lee immediately announced the activation of the state disaster relief operations room on the ground that the haze caused by local forest fires and the drought "had reached serious proportions".
In Sarawak, although the DAP Member of Parliament for Bintulu Chiew Chin Sing had repeated called on the government to step up its effort in combating the haze situation in the northern region of Sarawak, particularly Miri and Bintulu, his calls had fallen on deaf ears.
It was reported today that the Department of Environment (DOE) is investigating if local sources are also responsible for the hazy conditions nationwide, as wind patterns showed that unlike the bout of haze which struck last year, the wind seemed to be coming from the northeast and not from Kalimantan.
The question the people of Miri are entitled to ask is why the DOE is taking such an inordinately long time of close to a month to complete its study of the wind patterns, as Miri has been plunged into the haze disaster for a month.
The second question is if the sources of the haze in northern Sarawak are localised caused by our own plantation fires, why the authorities had been so ineffective to check the uncontrolled plantation fires, when they should have learnt an unforgettable lesson from the haze catastrophe last year? If the government authorities cannot check uncontrolled plantation fires in Sarawak and Sabah, how can the Malaysian government expect or even ask the Indonesian authorities to control their forest fires?
Last week, the Sarawak state government announced 20 companies which had been fined RM2,000 each for open burning, which was believed to be the main source of the haze in northern Sarawak.
These puny fines are most ridiculous and make a mockery of the commitment of the government to check the haze disaster.
Under the new regulations of the Sarawak Natural Resources and Environment Board Ordinance which came into effect on March 1, anyone caught carrying out open burning without written permission from NREB is liable to a maximum RM20,000 fine and three years’ jail.
How many written permissions have the NREB given out since March 1 to allow for open burning by companies and individuals in Sarawak and how many companies had been charged under the new regulations for illegal open burning? The Sarawak Chief Minister, Tan Sri Taib Mahmud, should explain whether state Barisan Nasional leaders, including elected representatives, are involved in companies responsible for open burning plunging Miri into a haze city for a month, and whether it is because of this high-level involvement by Sarawak Barisan Nasional leaders that the Federal and State authorities had been so ineffective in bringing the raging local estate fires under control?
The Sarawak Chief Minister also owes the people of Sarawak a second explanation - to prove that he had not run away from the Sarawak state during the state of haze emergency last September, but had in fact brought back techniques, expertise and technology which would make Sarawak the most advanced state in Malaysia to fight haze.
However, Taib Mahmud seems to be utterly helpless in the past month when north Sarawak in general and Miri in particular was plunged into a haze disaster. It would appear that Taib had not only run away from Sarawak during the haze emergency, but had wasted public funds in his overseas trip at the time as he has nothing concrete to show whatsoever with the return of the haze to Sarawak!
The Chairman of the National Disaster Relief Management Committee specially responsible to deal with the haze problem, Datuk Mohamad Rahmat, should be aware that he is the most unpopular person in Sarawak, and that his unpopularity has deepened by his failure to address the haze problem in Miri for the past month.
In his visit to Miri, Mohamad Rahmat should announce a special package of measures to make up for the month-long neglect and abandonment of Miri by both the Federal and State government, leaving the people of Miri to their own sufferings in the haze disaster.