The Right to a Healthy Environment

The Right to a Healthy Environment

Approximately 110 countries around the world guarantee the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. Pakistan, unfortunately is not one of them.

However, Justice Saleem Akhter in 1994, set an excellent example of judicial activism by holding that this right is implicit in the Constitution and thus enforceable. Also known as the first green judge of Pakistan, he interpreted ‘the right to life’, that is, Article 9 of the Constitution of Pakistan to include access to ‘clean atmosphere and unpolluted environment’ in the case of Shehla Zia vs. WAPDA.

Despite many similar judgments, two decades and many alarming reports later, the government has not taken any serious action to tackle the environmental hazards we face.

In fact, it is surprising that after recent participation in 2015 Paris Climate Conference, albeit the short and meaningless Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the Punjab government has promulgated The Punjab Forests (Amendment) Ordinance 2016. This Ordinance gives authority to the provincial government, after seeking approval of the provincial cabinet, to convert and use any part of reserved forestland for any purpose. The damage this will cause to the environment cannot be compensated by launching ‘Green Pakistan Programme’, which like many other programmes will wither away due to lack of regulation.

Maybe, once again, the excuse of ‘sustainable use’ will be used to justify this Ordinance. This cover was used in the recent legal proceedings regarding the hunting ban on Houbara bustards. The government sought permission for ‘sustainable hunting’ of the bustards.

According to the Convention on Biological Diversity which has been ratified by Pakistan, ‘sustainable use’ means the “use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations”.

Considering the performance of the government, it is highly doubtful that it can ensure ‘sustainable hunting’ because Houbara bustards are apparently the pillar of our foreign policy and the government just does not know how to say no to the Arab royals.

Besides, even if sustainable hunting practices are adopted, wildlife in Pakistan is still endangered due to extensive environmental damage to their natural habitats. Indus river dolphins and finless porpoises are under threat because of industrial pollution. Balochistan forest dormouse is endangered as a result of extensive deforestation. Burrowing vole, marbled polecat and various other species are endangered in Pakistan due to destruction of their natural habitat.

The point behind jumping from one environmental issue to another is that, the government has failed us all. Humans as well as the animals, both do not enjoy a healthy environment in Pakistan. The government has and will continue to subvert the environment as long as it can ensure financial investments, whether it is money from the Arabs, or the Chinese, in the case of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor program.

Environmental hazard is one of the biggest problems we have right now. Climate change is real. Many countries have been preparing for it, even those that are not at as high a risk as Pakistan. Maplecroft, in its Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CCVI) ranked Pakistan as the sixteenth most vulnerable country.

A report published in 2014 by the World Health Organization, ranked Karachi as the fifth most polluted city in the world, followed by Peshawar and Rawalpindi. According to World Health Organization’s air pollution database, Karachi has alarmingly high quantity of toxins in its air. Pakistan’s deforestation rate being the highest in Asia further adds to the hazard of air pollution. Yet, the government is actively pursuing coal-fired power plants and coal mining – environmentally harmful activities which have been shut down in many countries.

If annual floods in Badin and Thatta and the high number of deaths caused by the heatwave could not make the government realize the serious effects on climate change, then nothing really can. Our government has not taken any substantial let alone sufficient steps to deal with it.

Therefore, the responsibility falls upon us, the citizens. We have to actively engage ourselves in – and incorporate in our daily lives – practices which can save the environment.

The list of things to do to save the planet is long and never-ending. For starters, save electricity, conserve water, avoid using disposable and plastic items, plant trees, dispose waste properly by composting, separating, recycling and not burning it, use eco-friendly cars or, even better, carpool and use mass transit.

Most importantly, make use of your legal rights. If you see an activity or project which adversely affects you and the environment, find out more about it and participate in public processes, such as environmental assessments and hearings to debate whether that project should continue. Active and responsible citizenship may require that you file a petition in the court regarding it. For example, if trees are being cut in your area to make way for billboards, then gather support from your neighbors and file a joint petition.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which she might be associated.

Amnah Mohasin

Author: Amnah Mohasin

The writer practises law in Karachi and has a postgraduate degree in Forensics, Criminology and Law. She writes about socio-economic issues and blogs on behalf of Qaaf Se Qanoon – SZABIST’s legal and research clinic and legal literacy radio show.