FIRST-time homeowner Vinuvarma Subramaniam, 32, never thought moving into his dream home in Bandar Putera in Klang would be the start of a nightmare.
After waiting two years for the construction of the house to complete, he was excited to finally be able to give his family of four a place to call their own.
But on their first night in the new home, Vinuvarma and his family could not sleep. Bad haze had engulfed the housing area and seeped into their bedrooms.
The suffocating acrid smell of the smog continued to haunt them almost every day.
Plantation workers in Johan Setia in Klang, mostly immigrants are setting the forests and peatland on fire to illegally clear land for agriculture purposes.
This indiscriminate open burning becomes a daily activity during the dry season and is causing bad haze in Klang and Shah Alam.
According to a source close to the local council, there are 4,000 acres of land in Johan Setia, 50% of which were scorched.
The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry said the haze from the open burning affects Johan Setia, Bandar Puteri, and Bandar Putera in Klang, as well as Jalan Kebun, KL-Shah Alam Expressway (Kesas), and Kota Kemuning in Shah Alam.
Adding to the haze are illegal factories and industrial waste dumpsites that residents have spotted burning in Pulau Indah, Kapar, Sentosa, Pandamaran, and Jalan Banting in Klang.
“I cannot stay outside the house for more than five minutes as I am sensitive to the smoke.
“My two children cannot go cycling or play outside in the evening. I regret buying the house here,” said Petaling Jaya-born Vinuvarma.
The haze is so bad that accountant Ahmad Musthofa, 31, is already searching for a new place despite moving into his newly-purchased home in Bandar Putera just a month ago.
“I would not have bought this house if I knew about the situation,” said Ahmad who hoped to move out in five years.
“It is stressful living with the haze. I am worried about my two-year-old daughter’s health.
“I feel cheated by the developers and angry at the culprits and the Department of Environment’s lack of action.”
For long-time residents in Klang and Shah Alam, it is an issue they have been battling for 13 years.
“I first noticed the open burning in the early 1990s,” said Jason Lee, founder of the “Stop Open Fire In Johan Setia, Klang, Selangor” Facebook group.
Lee started the group during the height of the haze in 2014, when he was at his wit’s end because of the lack of action by the Selangor state government.
The air pollution index had reached such unhealthy levels during that period that Klang MP Charles Santiago proposed for the government to declare the open burning at Johan Setia as a national crisis.
In the fight for their right to clean air, residents in the group raised the issue not only with the state excos, but also the Klang Municipal Council (MPK), the Fire and Rescue Department, the Department of Environment (DOE), Natural Resources and Environ-ment Ministry, and Selangor Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali.
Over the years, the authorities deployed several efforts to mitigate the fires including a temporary API (Air Pollutant Index) reader, patrolling teams and threats to take landowners to court, but the open burning persisted.
The Star saw open burning taking place in a farm directly behind a signboard by the DOE and the ministry prohibiting the burning, indicating a blatant disregard for the law.
The burning took place in the late evenings and early mornings when enforcement teams were few or not present at all.
Lee said the authorities kept giving excuses that they could not do anything to permanently solve the issue.
Earlier this month, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the prosecution was difficult because of problems identifying the landowners.
The fires are frequently found at road reserves.
His response stoked anger among residents who were frustrated that the government was still unable to find a solution for a problem that was identified many years ago.
“Since 2004, they told us they could not identify the landowners because the land office did not know the boundaries of the land,” said Abdul Rashid Kadir, a south Klang residents association committee member.
He filed his first complaint 13 years ago and has been following up on the issue ever since.
“In 2007, the state government announced that Johan Setia would be developed into a halal hub but the project fell through.
“Our MPs showed a total lack of concern for this issue when we are suffering in the smog.
“They always use Indonesia as a scapegoat, but we need to take responsibility for the local burnings,” he said.
Lee said the residents group presented the issue to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry but no action was taken.
Lee added that they were also promised a meeting with Azmin to discuss the issue in 2015, but received no response despite multiple efforts to follow up.
The Star’s attempts to contact Selangor executive councillor for environment Elizabeth Wong for a response also went unanswered.
With the lack of effective enforcement and response, residents feel they have hit a wall in their struggle.
They rely on air filters to maintain clean air inside their homes, and some have even resorted to moving out to escape the haze.
As a result from living with the haze, Lee has had to undergo two surgeries to manage his chronic sinusitis while Abdul Rashid needs to get a steroid injection every three weeks or his nose would get blocked.
“My 16-year-old daughter has symptoms of sinusitis, too, but I hope she does not have to go through what I went through,” Abdul Rashid said.
Joined by new residents including Vinuvarma and Abdul Musthofa, the residents’ fight for clean air has seen an injection of new resolute.
Conversations on the Facebook group that has over 1,500 members has picked up with residents discussing new ways to make the authorities prioritise their plight including a proposal to declare Johan Setia a security issue.
In his statement, Wan Junaidi hoped the construction of the LRT 3 project from Johan Setia to Bandar Utama would spur development and gradually stop the open burning.
Residents said “hope” was not a solution.
“Just give us a two-year master plan on how to stop the open burning, but do not make us wait another 15 years.
“We just want a permanent solution,” said Abdul Rashid.
Read more at http://www.thestar.com.my/metro/community/2017/08/21/strangling-haze-plagues-klang-folk-open-burning-at-plantations-illegal-factories-and-dumpsites-belie/#CaDJ3sQOAUgRHRzv.99