Public Interest Litigation: A Path To Silent Revolution!

Public Interest Litigation: A Path To Silent Revolution!

After dealing with the cases of my clients, I always try to find some time to conduct research on an issue of public importance. Recently we challenged the amended Seed Act 2015 and the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act 2015 on behalf of a farmer, on the basis that local farmers have been deprived of their traditional farming practices, as the latest provisions introduced in the amended Seed Act provide that local farmers can only use the seed which is registered. The amendments in the latest Seed Act and the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act have incorporated the provisions of TRIPS Agreement (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) 1994. The TRIPS Agreement is supposed to be a step towards enabling developing countries to incorporate the intellectual property rights regime.

I argued before the court of the honourable Chief Justice that incorporating intellectual property rights in agricultural products might lead to a very dangerous path with the likelihood that farmers would be required to use only registered seeds or seeds which have been patented and sold by multinational corporations like Monsanto and DuPont, etc. I further argued that in 2004, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, many farmers committed suicide as they were caught in a vicious debt cycle for purchasing those patented seeds sold by multinational corporations.

Furthermore, there has been no assurance that the use of genetically modified seeds results in the increase of yield; perhaps it may result in the erosion of fine soil particles and biological diversity. Dependency on the use of patented seeds may also create food shortages in the future if the genetically modified seeds are sold at higher prices. Hence, the local farmers should not be subjected to buy these seeds as it may damage the agricultural sector. In case multinational corporations engage in anti-competitive practices by forming a cartel, it may herald an adverse impact on the food security situation.

So the amended Seed Act and the Plant Breeders Rights Act 2016 should be declared unconstitutional as they have resulted in the violation of fundamental rights of common citizens placing food security and traditional farming practices in jeopardy. The honourable Chief Justice has issued notices to the Attorney General of Pakistan to inquire into whether the latest amendments in Seed Act and Plant Breeders Rights Act have been made after consultation with the Cabinet, keeping in consideration the latest judgement given in Mustafa impex vs Federation of Pakistan (PLD 2016 SC 808). Furthermore, the honourable Chief Justice has also inquired from the standing counsel as to why there has been a need to put local farmers under a compulsion to buy patented seeds only and whether farmers have been deprived of their traditional farming practices that have been continuing for many years in the subcontinent. The issue is of immense public importance considering agriculture is the backbone of our country. On the other hand, we can also witness a tussle going on between the developed and developing world wherein the former wants to control the agricultural markets of developing countries by exploiting intellectual property rights in which the developed world has a comparative advantage in international trade.

I am sure the next hearing will generate an academic debate on a vital issue: trade-off between traditional farming practices and genetically modified seeds through the use of biotechnology. On the next date of hearing, all the concerned stakeholders including officials from the food ministry, intellectual property right organizations and the Competition Commission of Pakistan will appear before the court and a fascinating debate will ensue. I hope the honourable Chief Justice will give a landmark verdict which will have a lasting impact on the future generations of Pakistan.

A few days ago, on 9th January 2017, the honourable Chief  Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, on a petition from our end, sought undertaking from the federal government, the Chief of Bureau of Statistics and NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority) to include transgenders in the upcoming census scheduled for 2016, keeping in consideration the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in PLD 2013 SC 188. It will be the first time in the history of Pakistan that transgenders will be included in the population census, which is going to have a profound impact on the future. When a particular community is included in the census, a time comes ultimately when the Planning and Development Department in every province starts allocating resources towards its welfare. As law students we all know that the census and the allocation of resources towards development have a strong nexus. Since 1947 transgenders have been considered a marginalized community and I argued before the court that most of the transgender citizens are forced to live in red light areas and have no suitable opportunity to earn a living except by prostitution or beggary. I argued before the court that when a transgender citizen dies there is no one willing to perform burial rites for the deceased. The honourable Chief Justice also sought undertaking from NADRA and directed that a separate column be included in the identity card form so that transgenders can select their specific gender. Hats off to him for giving this landmark judgment! I am also grateful to my friend Nazar Aftab for connecting me with a transgender citizen, as no transgender citizen was willing to file this case. I ask the readers to imagine how insecure transgender citizens feel when they are not even willing to fight for their rights. It is pathetic to note that even Almaas Bobby, a social activist running a campaign for transgender citizens for many years, could not engage a lawyer to file this kind of petition. We ran from pillar to post and finally found one transgender citizen, Waqar Ali, from the far flung area of Kasur, on whose behalf we filed a constitutional petition.

This is also the beauty of public interest litigation – you need just one aggrieved person to file a petition and the benefit is attained by the whole community. During the proceedings of the case, I also had to face sarcasm from a few individuals for representing a transgender, but I remained steadfast and in the process learnt how difficult it was for transgender citizens to live in a society devoid of opportunity. I would also like to thank the team at Courting The Law and one its columnists, Purniya Awan for raising awareness about the issue through an article that I later converted into a public interest litigation petition.

The recent judgement of honourable Chief Justice directing to appoint labour inspectors to clamp down on the menace of child labour is also a wonderful step towards strengthening the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau and I feel honoured for appearing as the lead counsel on behalf of the petitioner. Furthermore, the Chief Justice’s recent judgment to declare unconstitutional the public service regulations that previously deprived physically impaired persons to serve in DMG (District Management Group) as well as in Foreign Service for many years, has now provided an opportunity for disabled persons to compete at par with other competitors.

Since the time of having entered into the legal profession, I have noticed that many people criticize public interest litigants but they have no idea that “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude never get second opportunity on earth” (from the Nobel Prize winning author of the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude). So my message for the young lawyers is to raise voice for the marginalized and empower them (rather than wasting time in the drudgery of carrying files for senior advocates in court). Trust me you will also feel empowered. It is for the first time in the history of Lahore High Court that the present Chief Justice is taking public interest issues very seriously and his judgments are becoming a source towards bringing a silent revolution. So the next time a law student visits his court, my recommendation would be to sit and observe him revolutionize the system!


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

Sheraz Zaka

Author: Sheraz Zaka

The writer is a constitutional lawyer, human rights activist and teacher. He can be contacted at [email protected]