KARACHI: The fate of around 150 cases pertaining to environmental pollution hangs in the balance as the only environmental tribunal (ET) in the province has become non-functional for the past two months, it emerged on Wednesday.

In April 2015, the Sindh government had set-up the environmental tribunal under Section 25 of the Sindh Environmental Protection Act, 2014 after the environment became a provincial subject under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.

Earlier, an ET for Sindh was in place under the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (Pepa), 1997, but it had been dysfunctional since July 2012 for a lack of quorum.

However, after devolution of the subject of environment from the federal government to the province, the government had appointed retired Justice Nasir Mohammad Sheikh as ET’s chairman with Abdul Rauf Memon and Advocate Mohammad Arif as its members (technical and legal, respectively) in 2015.

Sources said that the three-year tenure of the tribunal’s chairman and its members had expired on March 14 and the provincial authorities had failed to get their term extended for a second term.

Under the law, the provincial department had to move a summary seeking either new appointments on the vacant posts or recommend an extension in the tenure of the former chairman and members, judicial sources said, adding that the department did nothing on this important matter.

A retired SHC judge has been appointed as tribunal’s chairman

“There are around 150 cases pending trial in the environmental tribunal for the last one year,” said a judicial officer requesting anonymity. “No routine proceedings are being conducted as the tribunal is lying dysfunctional for the past two months,” the officer deplored.

Statistics suggested that most cases pending before the ET pertained to Karachi’s Korangi and Central districts.

The Korangi district topped the list with nearly 100 cases filed against industries located in the Korangi Industrial Area over different violations of the environmental laws.

There are around 48 cases from the Central district.

Delaying orders of the judicial commission

Official sources conceded that the delay in making the ET functional was also creating hurdles in compliance of the directives being issued by a Supreme Court-appointed judicial commission that specifically directed the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) to act against polluting industries across the province.

“The judicial commission has on different occasions directed Sepa to take action against the industrial units found involved in air, water or environmental pollution by not adhering to the environmental laws, but the agency cannot lodge any case against the polluters with the tribunal because it’s not functioning at the moment,” a judicial source told Dawn.

In the recent months, the judicial commission had repeatedly expressed its concerns over the performance of Sepa with regard to taking action against industries which had allegedly been polluting water sources and the sea by not installing sewage treatment plants in their individual capacity to discharge the toxic and hazardous industrial waste without proper treatment.

Efforts to make tribunal functional

However, the sources said after a delay of two months the provincial environment, coastal development and climate change department finally woke up to the matter and a summary was moved to the provincial cabinet seeking appointment of the ET’s new chairman and members.

An official source said that the provincial cabinet in one of its meetings earlier this month had given approval for the appointment of the tribunal’s new chairman.

Subsequently, the Sindh High Court’s chief justice was approached to nominate a retired high court judge or a sitting district and sessions’ judge for his/her appointment as the tribunal’s chairman.

The judicial sources said that SHC CJ Ahmed Ali M. Shaikh had nominated retired Justice Sadiq Hussain Bhatti and the provincial law department had last week notified his appointment as tribunal’s new head while the technical and legal members were also given a three-year extension in their tenure.

However, the sources said the tribunal had yet to become functional, as the new chairman was likely to assume his office from May 25.

SHC order clips Sepa powers to file cases

But, despite the much-needed appointments, the officials were sceptical about a fully fledged action on part of the environmental tribunal as they cited some legal hurdles in the operations of Sepa which has been restrained from taking action against industries in case of major violations of environmental laws.

Under Sections 11 and 17 of the Sindh Environmental Protection Act, 2014, Sepa files cases with the tribunal for passing appropriate orders against the industries found involved in major (or indoor) violations of the environmental laws.

“This year, Sepa has been unable to file a single case in the tribunal because of an SHC restraining order passed in January (2018) in a case filed by the SITE Association wherein it has objected to the standards determined by the Sindh Environmental Protection Council,” another judicial source said.

In these circumstances, Sepa was referring the direct complaints (filed by the public) to judicial magistrates of the districts concerned for passing orders against the industries involved in minor (or indoor) violations punishable under Section 14 and 15 of the act.

“Currently, there are some 270 cases pending disposal before the judicial magistrates,” said the judicial official, arguing that this was the maximum they could do to get the violators punished.

An official told Dawn that Sepa had approached the judicial commission, which was likely to take up the matter in the coming days.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2018

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