Environmental plunder and the right to know
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 out with a Public Trust Doctrine which stated that the natural resources like air, sea, water and the 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. Public at large is the real owner of the sea-shores, running waters, airs, forests and ecologically fragile lands, while the state is only a custodian. Such resources being a gift of nature, cannot be converted into private ownership and should be made freely and equally available to all citizens.
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 monopolized by friends and relatives of people in power. The KPK government has already unleashed the plunder of yet another hill station (Thandiani) by approving 1200 Kanals for residential and commercial purposes. Likewise Rs.100 million have been approved for developing infrastructure to facilitate similar devastation at Malsa and Beringali hill resorts.
A natural heritage that once belonged equally to all citizens, is now the property of an incestuous elite, 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. The ordinary people of Pakistan and their future generations have thus been deprived of this right for all times.
Seemingly unrelated with the illegal capture and destruction of our natural environment by our utterly selfish and callous 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. A hugely shared ignorance about its very existence and 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. It also explains how the government has succeeded in keeping a shroud over its environmental plunder and how it has established clueless and helpless Ombudsmen to put on a façade of accountability.
On May 25, 2012 a Pakistani citizen, exercising his ‘right to Information’ wrote to two government departments seeking information on who were the beneficiaries of the environmental plunder at our hill stations. The two departments approached were the Local Government & Rural Development and the Galiyat Development Authority of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The specific information sought was the names of persons to whom plots (residential or commercial) were allotted between 1.1.2001 and 25.5.2012 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’ days limit laid down in the law expired uneventfully – without receiving any response. So on 28 June 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 ignore and not even respond to the Ombudsman’s letter. The applicant made a second appeal to the Ombudsman on 23 July 2012. The Ombudsman this time decided to do nothing and filed the appeal. Hoping against hope, a third appeal was made to the Ombudsman on 20 September 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 yet more tax payers’ money. Courts are the last resort. Perhaps a good lawyer who has his heart stitched at the right place, will take up this case in the larger public interest.
Express Tribune September 2012