June 5 is observed as World Environment Day in order to create awareness about the state of the earth’s ecology, our actions upon it and of steps that can be taken to balance our species’ habits of consumption against our planet’s capacity to provide. Here are some observations.
The first was an observation that the subject of environment and environment protection was elitist; that the condition of the hungry poor awam did not leave time for things like trees. This observation generally falls into the great “environment vs development” debate, where the imperatives of development trump environmental priorities. It is a gravely mistaken notion.
The largest killer of Pakistani men, women and children today is not the war on terror, sectarian violence or western imperial forces. It is impure water. Around 2.5 million ‘Disability Adjusted Life Years’ are lost annually to hepatitis, typhoid and diarrhoea, all water-borne illnesses. As many as a third of the patients in Pakistani hospitals, today, are there because of impure water. With loss of earnings, time off work, low productivity and associated healthcare infrastructure, the cost of impure water alone comes to 2.8 per cent of GDP. All told, environment degradation such as impure water, polluted air and damaged ecosystems costs of the national exchequer approximately one billion rupees and countless invaluable lives a year.
And so, I have a hard time believing when one pretends they can walk up to a poor farmer and tell him he can have a road, school and hospital but can’t have clean water. This “environment vs development” debate needs to be put to rest once and for all.
The second observation arose from the nature of the televised debate, which seemed to focus on the ability of the Environment Protection Agency, Punjab to enforce environmental laws on the one hand and the strong-arm tactics of environment inspectors against the business community on the other. In other words, the nature of the debate didn’t rise above Thanedari 101.
If the EPA, Punjab, doesn’t feel it has the capacity to enforce the law, the post-Eighteenth Amendment framework provides them the ability to lobby the government for a tailor-made law. This the EPA has done, and a draft is currently circulating. But the law is words on paper unless practical. The new law should ensure the financial and political independence of the EPA. This can be done by ensuring the EPA is a body corporate and not a agency susceptible to government fiat. The director-general of the EPA must have a fixed tenure, just as the employees of the EPA should be answerable to the EPA alone.
If it is accepted that the environment protection tribunals adjudicating environment cases have underperformed, then perhaps this is the time to reconsider the experiment with them. When the environment tribunals were formed under the Pakistan Environment Protection Act, 1997, this new specialised field needed expert adjudicators. However, in the years since, the environmental protection has acquired new dimensions. Last month, the Chief Justice of Pakistan announced ‘Green Benches’ in the Supreme and High Courts. Perhaps the government of Punjab should consider mainstreaming environmental adjudication as well. This can be done by conferring jurisdiction to hear environment cases to the district sessions courts. Environment adjudication at the district level would also provide access to environmental justice. The solutions to thanedari questions are easy to find. But the debate must go beyond and understand that environment regulation is as much about government policy as it is about enforcement.
A word of support to young environmentalist Ali Shehbaz, who wowed a room full of dour technocrats and NGO activists at the Green Economy Consultation in Islamabad a fortnight ago. He passionately argued that the Pakistani delegation to Rio this year should include the voice of the youth.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2012.