IN a country where the economic cost of environmental degradation, as determined by the World Bank, has increased from six to more than seven per cent of GDP over the past five years, a most gratifying recent development went unnoticed by many citizens
It was an announcement by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry at the concluding ceremony of the South Asian Conference on Environmental Justice in Islamabad on March 25 of a pro-environment ‘green bench’ in the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
The chief justice stated that the constitution does not specifically articulate the issue of environmental protection/preservation in any provision, but the courts of Pakistan have interpreted “right to life” in Article 9 as encompassing the environment in all its dimensions.
This has become a basic principle of environmental justice and strengthens the courts while dealing with any activity posing a threat to human health and well-being.
Chief Justice Ijaz Ahmad Chaudhry of the Lahore High Court (LHC), was quick off the mark to emulate the bold example of the Supreme Court (SC), and on April 5 constituted ‘green’ single and divisional benches at all seats of the LHC, and has appointed 109 civil judges/magistrates and 36 district & session judges to act as ‘green’ judges.
Additionally, existing and new cases under the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (PEPA) 1997 or relating to environmental interest litigation stand transferred to these benches. Should the other provinces follow suit, there may well be yet hope for Pakistan.
In addition to suo motu actions taken by the SC (New Murree Project, Shehla Zia’s grid-station, drinking water for Islamabad/Rawalpindi, the silting up of Simly and Mangla dams, Lahore canal road-widening, Margalla Chalets Scheme, Karachi’s Webb Ground, commercial shops in Islamabad’s Fatima Jinnah Park, to name but a few outstanding examples), the country’s superior courts have been increasingly aware of ecological issues
These issues deal with the expropriation of parks and amenity spaces, arbitrary conversion of town-planning schemes, construction of illegal, hazardous and environmentally degrading buildings, air pollution from vehicles and industrial plants, noise pollution in residential areas, criminal hazardous-waste/sewage disposal practices, cutting down of forests, ravaging of biodiversity and the like.
Irrefutably, exploding populations and the increasing over-consumption of man are insidiously, but surely, decimating the ecology of the planet. We are slowly overwhelming, polluting and laying waste to land, sea, air and the biodiversity therein (plants, trees, animals, birds, insects, fish and marine life, etc).
Unless mankind stops seeing the environment as separate from the economy, and realises that the environment is at the core of the economy and society, we are doomed. The ‘green benches’ all over the country must promote this attitude.
The government, abdicating its responsibility (under PEPA 1997) to protect and preserve the environment, has gone over to the side of the marauders and is actually working with big business and industry to destroy what little is left.
Principally responsible for the laxity in enforcement are the Pakistan Environmental Council (led by the prime minister and four chief ministers) and the four provincial Environmental Protection Agencies (EPAs) working under the provincial environment ministers.
Inefficiency, criminal negligence, nepotism, brazen exploitation and massive corruption in these agencies have made a mockery of the applicable laws, enriching wealthy corporate interests at the expense of the life and well-being of citizens, especially the poor and weak.
The EPAs, who are the front-line soldiers in this war, particularly after the 18th Amendment devolution, are the most dishonest and corrupt where procurement of substandard equipment for environmental laboratories, spurious sampling/reporting on effluents in collusion with violators, issuance of NOCs for incomplete and defective project IEEs (Initial Environmental Examination) and EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessment) are concerned.
Further, non-monitoring of projects during construction or subsequent operation, ignoring poisonous effluents being dumped in the air, on the land, and in rivers, lakes and the sea, allowing hundreds of polluting factories to operate without IEE/EIA NOCs are all innovative means discovered by the EPAs to support wrongdoing.
One such critical case before the SC ‘green bench’ concerns environmental devastation in Chakwal district: the setting up of industrial plants (three cement, one paper) in the ‘magical’ Kahoon Valley.
Spearheaded by the advocacy group, Shehri, 26 residents of the area (representative of a 250,000 affected population) have informed the court that their quality of life has been degraded to such an extent that they are at the risk of severe diseases (such as cancer) and premature death by water contamination and scarcity, air/noise pollution, and ruination of land, along with damage to heritage sites, ecology, flora and fauna of the valleys.
The petitioners maintain that despite severe lacunae (concurred with by the federal government, and the district environment officers of Rawalpindi, Gujrat and Lahore) identified during the EIA process, NOCs were issued to two cement plants including the excavation of limestone raw material. They have asked for the appointment of a commission of experts to make an independent assessment of these issues.
The third cement and the paper plant have ‘assumed approval’ of NOCs owing to the passage of the prescribed waiting period.
Cement manufacture is highly polluting, with high nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide,, hydrocarbons and particulate matter (quarrying, dust from kilns, clinker coolers, raw and cement mills) emissions. Almost five per cent of global greenhouse gases are generated by this industry.
Papermaking uses extensive energy, extremely large amounts of water, and toxic chemicals (including chlorine compounds). In the US, it is the fourth largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases, releasing about 212 million tons of hazardous substances into the air/water and is ranked as the third-largest user of industrial water.
If we are to make any progress on the environmental front (or even to survive), there is much that must be done to straighten out the orientation and working of the EPAs, to straighten and strengthen them and make them independent of political and corporate interests.