Environmental plunder and the right to know
By: Naeem Sadiq
The ancient Romans had foreseen that one day, there will be an Islamic Republic, whose rulers will be hell-bent upon destroying their own environment and natural resources. The Romans, therefore, came up with a public trust doctrine, which stated that natural resources, like the air, sea, water and forests have such a great significance for people as a whole, that it would be completely unjustified to make them a subject of private ownership. In line with the public trust doctrine, the Supreme Court of India, in its recent judgments, has declared that the state is the trustee of all natural resources which are meant for public use and enjoyment. The public at large is the real owner of the sea shores, running waters, air, forests and ecologically-fragile lands, while the state is only a custodian.
The hill resorts of Nathia Gali, Doonga Gali, Changla Gali and Ayubia represent some of the finest natural and scenic locations of Pakistan. They are being brutally and relentlessly sub-divided, plotted, distributed and monopolised by friends and relatives of people in power. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) government has now unleashed its plunder of yet another hill station, Thandiani, by approving 1,200 kanals for residential and commercial purposes. Likewise, Rs100 million have been approved for developing infrastructure to facilitate similar devastation at the Malsa and Beringali hill resorts.
A natural heritage that once belonged equally to all citizens is now the property of an incestuous elite, which is in gross violation of the public trust doctrine. It violates the right to equality and equal opportunity, the right of equal access to natural resources and locations and the right to move freely at hills and forests that are a common gift to all people.
Seemingly unrelated with the illegal capture and destruction of our natural environment, by our utterly selfish ruling class, is a document called the Constitution of Pakistan? Article 9 of this document and the Freedom of Information (FOI) Ordinance 2002 grant every citizen the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance (subject to certain limitations). This law —perhaps, like many other laws — is conspicuous on two significant counts. One, is the hugely shared ignorance about its very existence and second, an unwritten understanding to never comply with its contents.
Here is a real-life story to demonstrate the ‘respect’ that the government has for its own FOI law. On May 25, 2012, a Pakistani citizen, exercising his ‘right to information’ wrote to two government departments — the local government and the rural development department and the Galiyat Development Authority of K-P — seeking information on who were the beneficiaries of the environmental plunder going on at our hill stations. The specific information sought were the names of persons to whom plots — residential or commercial — were allotted between January 1, 2001 and May 25, 2012 at the Nathiagali hill station and the price paid by these individuals. Little did the naïve citizen know that the government would be as possessive of this information as it is for its nuclear assets.
The famous ‘21’-day limit laid down in the law expired uneventfully — without receiving any response from the departments. So, on June 28, 2012, an appeal was made to the provincial ombudsman to intervene and force the delinquent departments to comply. The ombudsman wrote a clerical — almost apologetic — note to the two departments. Both decided to not even respond to the ombudsman’s letter. The applicant made a second appeal to the ombudsman on July 23, 2012. This time the ombudsman decided to do nothing and merely filed the appeal. Hoping against hope, a third appeal was made to the ombudsman on September 20, 2012 and that is where the matter rests.
What happens when government departments refuse to follow their own laws and cover up their own misdeeds? The law suggests recourse to the ombudsman. However, it is clear that the ‘ombudsman’ is only a helpless, ineffective and ceremonial position intended to waste taxpayers’ money. Courts are the last resort. Perhaps, a good lawyer who has his heart in the right place will take up this case in the larger public interest.