MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Gazing at smoke from the engines of decades-old buses and trucks, mingling with the dust spat out by stone-crushing machines near his bookshop on a busy road in Muzaffarabad, Shoukat Awaz Mir has the satisfaction of knowing that people like him finally have a way to fight pollution: They can sue.
The government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir (Azad Jammu and Kashmir, or AJK) has inaugurated tribunals dedicated to hearing cases against violators of the northern region’s environmental laws.
The courts were authorised by the legislative assembly 12 years ago. But officials at the AJK Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say lack of money prevented it from setting them up until now.
Mir, 40, believes the reason for the change is a petition he filed in 2012 in the High Court, complaining about environmental damage caused by the rebuilding of the city’s infrastructure after a devastating 2005 earthquake and a large-scale hydroelectric scheme begun in 2007.
“We have hope that at least issues of pollution will be resolved through environment courts, because now the people have a specific forum to file environment-related complaints,” Mir said.
Mir’s petition to the High Court seeks to force the government to control damage to the environment in Muzaffarabad, a city of 300,000 people which is the region’s capital.
“Due to construction of city infrastructure rehabilitation projects and (a) mega hydroelectric scheme, very heavy traffic is running on roads around the clock, and concerned government agencies have failed to provide any international-standard facility … to secure (the) air from pollution, dust and emission from engines’ gases,” the petition says.
Air pollution and contamination of water supplies are endangering the health of the city’s residents, it says. And the diversion of one of the city’s two main rivers for the hydroelectric scheme will lead to even greater concentration of sewage in the water that remains, it adds. Mir’s house backs onto the affected river.
Mir believes that even though his petition is still being processed, it prompted the High Court to require the EPA to enforce environmental laws, pushing the EPA to finally secure funds from the government to establish the legal framework for the new courts.
Mir says the courts will pay a pivotal role in preventing and controlling air pollution.
“Work on Muzaffarabad city reconstruction projects will continue for four more years, and if they (building companies) do not sprinkle water to prevent dust, anyone will (be able to) go to the environmental tribunal,” Mir said.
There are now environmental courts in each of Pakistan-administered Kashmir’s districts, with a tribunal in Muzaffarabad to hear cases involving potential fines of 3 million Pakistani rupees (around $31,000) or above.
Riaz Ahmed, registrar at the new court in Muzaffarabad, said the first two cases to be heard will be against stone-crushing machines in the industrial city of Mirpur, 270 km (170 miles) from Muzaffarabad.
The new system “will raise awareness about environment issues among the masses on the one hand, and prevent violation of environmental laws on the other, due to fear of the courts,” said the EPA’s director, Aurangzeb Khan.
“The environment is an unseen friend or foe - its degradation does not have visible instant effects, people are unaware of it and consequently its preservation is not taken as seriously as other issues,” he added.
LIMITED IMPACT ON STATE?
Shoukat Aziz, a public prosecutor at the High Court, believes that environmental trials will inform and motivate the public to take legal action against threats to their health and surroundings.
The EPA has also hired environmental inspectors and bought devices to check vehicle emissions in Muzaffarabad. Its head, Khan, said the city would try to manage traffic better to reduce jams, which increase emissions as people leave their engines running while stationary.
The lawyer presenting Mir’s petition in the High Court, Karam Dad Khan, believes the EPA will be most effective at dealing with non-governmental entities such as individuals, transport businesses and other private companies.
Khan fears EPA officials may not be powerful enough to stand up to government departments that violate environmental laws, particularly the Water and Power Development Authority of Pakistan. It is building the 969-megawatt Neelum Jhelum hydroelectric project near Muzaffarabad, and has been criticised for damaging the area’s ecology.
Experts have warned that the planned diversion of 80 percent of the water from the Neelum River - which flows through Muzaffarabad and helps cool the city, while absorbing sewage and urban waste - will have severe effects on the local climate by raising the average temperature.
Roshan Din Shad is a freelance journalist based in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.