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Leave Penang Hill alone, say activists

Free Malaysia Today logo Free Malaysia Today 21/9/2021 Predeep Nambiar
a train traveling down train tracks near a forest: The funicular railway now serving Penang Hill. (Bernama pic) © Provided by Free Malaysia Today The funicular railway now serving Penang Hill. (Bernama pic)

GEORGE TOWN: Two environmental groups are objecting against the Penang government’s insistence on proceeding with a cable car project at Penang Hill.

Spokesmen for Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and Malaysia Nature Society (MNS) told FMT they believed the project would go against the spirit of the Unesco biosphere reserve status given to the hill.

Penang Hill is the third national biosphere reserve after Tasik Chini in Pahang and the Crocker Range in Sabah under Unesco’s Man and Biosphere programme.

The Penang government said the cable car will be within the transition zone of the Unesco reserve, where development is allowed.

SAM president Meenakshi Raman said the cable car would not go well with the concept of a biosphere as it would increase the number of people going to the hilltop, undermining the integrity of the area.

“The overarching element of the biosphere reserve is its environmental and ecological importance. Hence, tourism should be limited,” she said.

Penang has proposed a cable car line from the foot of the Botanic Gardens to the 833m-high hilltop resort. It was supposed to have been funded partially by Putrajaya with a RM100 million injection under the 2020 budget.

However, the funding was scrapped when Perikatan Nasional (PN) took over the government in March last year. The Penang government has since pledged to carry out the project through a private financing initiative.

A proposed town planning document for the resort shows a helipad, a four-storey food court, and a huge flagstaff as part of the development proposed.

The hill’s site managers say the cable car project would cost about RM150 million.

NGOs that are against the project have said it would permanently damage the hill as it could take no more than 4,800 visitors a day.

A total of 1.38 million people went up the hill in 2019. Green groups such as SAM estimate that an average of two million people will go up the hill in a year, making the daily average about 5,000.

The 2016 Penang Hill Special Area Plan (SAP), a town planning blueprint, is set to be updated to raise the capacity of the hill to more than 6,000 people a day.

Those supporting the cable car project say it would alleviate traffic on the Swiss-made funicular trains, which are prone to breakdowns, while boosting tourism.

British-era stations

MNS adviser D Kanda Kumar said the authorities should target only tourists who could appreciate nature, instead of going for mass tourism.

He added that Penang Hill and Taiping’s Bukit Larut hill station were the only British-era stations that had been spared from mass tourism and should remain that way.

He called for the improvement of crowd control on the hill, saying noise levels might cause birds there to go elsewhere.

He said noise levels should be cut by reducing the footfalls on the hill and also in the Air Itam township at the foot of the hill to protect the species in the reserve.

“As for the cable car project, we don’t know where the line is going to be. Show us the alignment,” he said.

Penang executive councillor Jagdeep Singh Deo has reiterated that the cable car project could proceed despite the biosphere status and has urged those against it to meet him immediately.

He said the 2030 Penang Hill SAP would be gazetted by the end of the year and that it would provide more details on the cable car route.

The Unesco biosphere reserve on the hill covers 12,481 hectares, taking in the Botanic Gardens, the Penang National Park, six permanent forest reserves and two dams.

An informal group of activists called Friends of Penang Hill fought against the cable car idea in the late 1980s. The group’s protests were said to have cost former chief minister Lim Chong Eu his state seat. The project was scrapped when his successor, Koh Tsu Koon, took over.

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