KARACHI: Three senior lawyers have recently written a letter to the chief minister, urging him to direct the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) to engage the public in the review process of the Sindh Environmental Protection Act 2014 and its rules and regulations, it emerged on Sunday.
The letter also calls for a strategic environmental assessment of the amendments to the law as proposed by the department.
Sources said the letter, a copy of which is available with Dawn, has been written against the backdrop of the government’s initiative to amend the Act and rules, without engaging the public in the review process — a mandatory obligation under the law.
In this respect, they said, a draft had already been sent to the law department for vetting. The department, sources said, recently held a high-level meeting to discuss the amendments and framing of new rules but there was no mention of engaging the public in the review process.
Proposed changes to law will make Sepa, tribunal legally ineffective
The letter on the subject, ‘Infringement of the fundamental rights to environment and information by Sindh, environmental protection, coastal, development and climate department’, is written by advocates Shahab Usto, Ghulam Rasool Soho (a member of the Sindh Bar Council) and Zubair Ahmed Abro.
The letter says that the proposed amendments are reportedly, inter alia, in respect to disposal of industrial effluent; amendment to the provision ‘regulating initial environmental examination (IEE)’ and environmental impact assessment (EIA); powers of the environmental protection tribunal.
“These changes would ultimately have an effect on environmental protection in the province of Sindh. It would be apposite to point out here that due to increase in climate induced events including heavy rains, heat waves, prolonged gap in rain resulting in droughts the provincial environmental law requires stringent provisions for its compliance, and an effective environmental protection agency,” it says.
It refers to the Section 18 of the 2014 Act which provides for carrying out a strategic environmental assessment of policies, legislation, plans and programmes prepared by any department and agency.
“All provincial government agencies, departments, authorities, local councils and local authorities responsible for formulating policies, legislation, plans and programmes to be implemented in Sindh province which may cause any environmental impact in the jurisdiction of the province shall, before submitting the same to the competent authority for approval, be forwarded to Sindh Environmental Protection Agency for a strategic environmental assessment…….”
It may be mentioned here that Section 18 and Rule 7 of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency Rules, 2015 make it mandatory to hold public consultation for a review of strategic environmental assessment.
Section 18 is mandatory provision as non-compliance is punishable under Section 22 of the 2014 Act.
The lawyers have urged the chief minister to direct Sepa to carry out strategic environmental assessment of the amendments prepared to be made to the Act and engage the public in the review process.
A reading of the draft of the Sindh Environmental Protection Act, 2014 (Amendment 2019) shows that it carries major amendments that would clip legal powers of local courts, the Environmental Protection Tribunal and Sepa — an important but neglected institution already too weak to implement the law and prosecute influential offenders.
Under the amended version of the law — yet to be approved — Sepa would lose the legal power to enter and carry out independent inspection of any premises where ‘there are reasonable grounds to believe that an offence under this act has been, or is being, or likely to be committed’.
The draft law says that inspection would be carried out at a ‘specified time’ (which would be communicated to the owner of the premises) along with a ‘representative of the concerned trade association’.
Similarly, search warrants by courts and the tribunal would be carried out at a ‘specified time’ and in the presence of a representative of the concerned trade association.
In addition, it removes all clauses mentioning the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (Act V of 1898)’ which empowers the tribunal to decide criminal cases.
It, however, retains the clauses which empower the tribunal under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (Act V of 1908).
Sources said this would have far reaching implications as punishments for any offence could be awarded only under the Criminal Procedure Code, 1898.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2021