The Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution abolished the Concurrent Legislative List. This was the list of subjects that both parliament and provincial assemblies could legislate upon. The abolition of the Concurrent Legislative Lists means that parliament is restricted to legislation on subjects mentioned in the Federal Legislative List alone.
Before the Eighteenth, the phrase “environmental pollution and ecology” appeared at Serial Number 24 of the Concurrent Legislative List. This was the only mention of the environment in the Constitution. After the Eighteenth Amendment, the subjects of “environmental pollution and ecology” are now solely the legislative domain of the provincial assemblies and the word ‘environment’ does not appear in our Constitution.
Despite their conspicuous absence, environmental rights have been vigorously upheld and protected by our courts. In Shehla Zia vs Wapda (1994), the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that a clean and healthy environment was the fundamental right of every citizen of Pakistan by reading the right to a clean and healthy environment into the Fundamental Right to Life protected by Article 9 of the Constitution.
Since the Shehla Zia case, the Supreme Court and the High Courts have repeatedly upheld the right to a clean and healthy environment as a fundamental right. It is no exaggeration that environmental rights in Pakistan owe their existence to judicial intervention and activism. After Shehla Zia, parliament passed the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (PEPA) 1997, which goes a long way in complying with the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) to which Pakistan is a signatory, protecting the environment and ensuring that citizens have legal recourse in the event that their environmental rights are violated. However, environmental rights should be protected by the law and not just the courts. Though PEPA still exists, it is the responsibility of the provincial government to rise to the challenge of protecting the environment.
June 5, 2012 is World Environment Day. It will also be the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Rio Declaration. Approaching this auspicious occasion, several measures taken by the government of Punjab merit appreciation. The first is the assent, granted by the governor of Punjab, to the Punjab Environment Protection Bill, 2011. The newly notified Punjab Environment Protection Act, 2012 provincialises PEPA post the Eighteenth Amendment and is a step towards the province ensuring the environmental rights of its citizens. The newly notified law also allows the government of Punjab to appoint a chairperson for the Environment Protection Tribunal, which had remained defunct since last summer on account of the retirement of its previous chairperson.
Yesterday’s newspaper brought news that the Punjab government, in consultation with the chief justice of the Lahore High Court, has appointed a new chairperson of the Tribunal. This is a gift from the Punjab government on the eve of World Environment Day. It is now up to the Tribunal to take the initiative and adjudicate cases regarding harm to the environment. The government of Punjab has also approved a Lahore Canal Urban Heritage Park Bill for the assembly. This bill, the first of its kind in Pakistan’s history, is the outcome of the Lahore Bachao Tehreek’s activism to protect the natural and man-made environment along the Lahore Canal from destruction resulting from road-widening schemes. Although the bill falls short of protection of the green belts along the Lahore Canal, it is a huge step forward in urban planning legislation in Pakistan. One hopes that the advisory committee to be established under such a bill, if passed by the Punjab Assembly, will remain independent and resist future attempts to widen Canal Road — in the name of specious development — at the expense of the natural environment.
Last week, the Environment Protection Department and the Environment Protection Agency of Punjab invited comments from representatives of all of Punjab’s districts, both official and NGO, on what to do for World Environment Day. Despite valid criticism of some of the steps mentioned above, the momentum developing in relation to environmental awareness is to be commended and it is hoped that the provincial government can maintain its current trajectory.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2012.