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Seven-year-old sues Pakistan government over climate change

Girl claims plans to develop dirty coal deposits will deprive future generations of the right to healthy life, writes Zofeen Ebrahim

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Rabab Ali, with her younger brother (Image courtesy Qazi Ali Athar)

In a landmark case, seven-year old Rabab Ali has sued the government for violating her rights, and the rights of her generation, to a healthy life.

“I want the government to give me and my friends a safe environment to grow up in. I want it to help me conserve it for future generations,” she said

Rabab and her father, who is also the environmental lawyer representing her in the Pakistan supreme court, were heartened when the chief justice overruled the rejection of her appeal by the apex court’s registrar, stating that minors can file a legal petition in the interest of the public at large through an attorney.

“The fact that the higher court has established this right of a minor is a pioneering and landmark judgement in the country, setting a precedent for the lower courts to follow,” said Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, Asia director of Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).

“It gives me much hope,” said her father, Qazi Ali Athar.

Ali is pleading that the exploitation of particularly dirty lignite coal, in Sindh province’s Tharparkar district, will drastically increase Pakistan’s carbon dioxide emissions, polluting the air and be catastrophic for future generations, as well as and contributing to global warming.

The petition states that it “infringes” upon the constitutionally guaranteed “right to life” and the inalienable “fundamental rights” of young Ali and Pakistan's future generations; and violates the “Doctrine of Public Trust”, the principle that the government must preserve certain natural and cultural resources for public use.

This is the first time that a minor has filed a public interest litigation case in Pakistan. It is also the latest in a global string of lawsuits geared at forcing governments to do more on climate change.

Last year, a farmer brought a public interest case against the Pakistan government for failing to implement its own climate laws.

It is also the first time that a court will decides whether or not that state has a legal obligation towards its citizens and to future generations with respect to the environment.

This case comes at a time when the port city of Karachi is
witnessing daily riots because of long power outages. Pakistan’s electricity crisis has reached a tipping point. Although 70% of households are connected to the national grid, few get uninterrupted power supply. People have blocked roads and burnt tyres, while law enforcers have resorted to firing bullets into the air to disperse angry crowds.

The country has an installed electricity capacity of 22,797 megawatts (MW) but peak production only reached a dismal 16,548 MW, largely because no one pays their energy bills, including the government. This leaves the country struggling with a deficit of nearly 5,000 MW, against a demand that can reach up to 21,200 MW.

As daily life becomes unbearable, especially during the summer when temperatures soar and natural gas resources dwindle, the government hopes to exploit the nearly 175 billion tonnes of untapped coal resources in Sindh’s remote Tharparkar district in the lower Indus basin.

The Sindh Mines Department says that Pakistan’s coal reserves have the potential to provide 100,000 MW of power – enough for the next 200 years – and jobs for nearly 
4,400 people from the community. China’s state council has approved an investment of US$1.2 billion (8 billion yuan) in the Thar coal projects and signed memorandum of understandings for eight coal projects under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

But there are people like Rabab Ali, who are pleading to rethink its decision and to let coal remain in the ground while looking for alternatives to meet the energy crunch. Among other issues, her petition states that the people living in the region, the Thari, are Dalits, a caste known earlier as “untouchables”, who already face caste-based discrimination. The opening of the coal reserve would displace their homes and destroy local livelihoods.

chindialogue's sister site, thethirdpole.net, spoke to her father and environment lawyer Qazi Ali Athar:

thethirdpole.net (TTP): You are facing a powerful adversary, do you feel overwhelmed? How good are your chances of making a dent?

Qazi Ali Athar (QA): I don’t give up easily. I have been putting the state in the dock since 2003 and I have met with various degrees of success. To name a few, I have taken government-run and private hospitals in Karachi to court for their non-compliance in adhering to hospital waste management rules and failure to set up sufficient number of incinerators. I have taken the local government to court to force them to minimise traffic pollution.

Recently I was appointed by the court to act as amicus curiae [an impartial adviser to a court of law in a particular case] in a hearing on nuclear power plants. We were able to insist upon the government carrying out an environment assessment study and public hearing as well as a change in the design of the power plant to make it safer.

TTP: But your daughter Rabab Ali has filed a petition at a time when the entire country is facing acute power shortages. Few people are going to be sympathetic to her?

QA: The government is already a signatory to many international environment treaties in which it has promised to save the planet. I am just reminding it of its legal obligations. I got an analysis about Pakistan’s climate vulnerability from renowned climate scientist James Hansen.

Besides, the Prime Minister himself noted at the UN Paris climate conference that Pakistan was one of the most vulnerable nations. We ourselves are already experiencing the vagaries of climate change in the form of floods, droughts and heatwaves.

I am invoking the ancient Public Trust Doctrine passed from the Romans into English common law. It’s very simple and states that things like water, air and the seas, which belong to every citizen, have to be protected. The government, as the custodian of our natural resources, cannot exploit it.

TTP: But the state also has a responsibility to provide for basic needs, including energy to its citizens?

QA: It needs to invest in renewables to overcome the power shortage. We are endowed with plenty of sun and wind.

TTP: But scientists today say there is clean technology available to extract coal?

QA: I do not believe that there is such a thing as green technology that can reduce coal emissions. If we start exploiting the Thar coal fields, we would elevate Pakistan’s emissions 1,000 times the present level, so it would be better to keep the coal in the ground.

This interview was originally published on The Third Pole

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