Ms. Shehla Zia v. WAPDA, PLD 1994 SC 693
This public interest litigation came before the Supreme Court of Pakistan when petitioners challenged the construction of a nearby electricity grid station due to potential health risks and hazards. The case addresses a range of issues including, environmental protection, and an expansive interpretation of the right to life.
A coalition of residents sent a letter of petition to the Supreme Court to challenge the Water and Power Development Authority's (WAPDA) construction of an electricity grid station in their neighborhood, on designated "green belt" property. The Court heard the matter as a human rights case, as Article 184 (3) of the Pakistan Constitution provides original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court to take up and determine any matter concerning the enforcement of fundamental rights of public importance. The Court considered the case to be maintainable under Article 184 (3) since the danger and encroachment alleged were such as to violate the constitutional right to life when interpreted expansively.
The residents argued that the high-voltage grid station would pose a health risk and potential hazard to local residents. Ultimately, the court determined the scientific evidence inconclusive, while observing the general trend supports that electromagnetic fields have negative effects on human health. The Court accepted the petitioner’s argument that it should adopt the precautionary principle set out in the 1992 Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development, the first international instrument that linked environment protection with human rights, whereby the lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to prevent environmental degradation. Thus, it was held that the right to a healthy environment was part of the fundamental right to life and right to dignity, under Article 9 and 14 of the Pakistan Constitution, respectively. The Court ruled that the word "life" covers all facets of human existence, all such amenities and facilities that a person is entitled to enjoy with dignity, legally and constitutionally.
However, in an effort to strike a balance between the rights of citizens and the plans that are executed by the authorities for the welfare, economic progress and prosperity of the country, the Court did not make a definitive ruling on the pending construction of the grid station, but, with the consent of both parties, ordered a review and report of grid project by the National Engineering Services of Pakistan (NESPAK) to suggest alterations and location alternatives. The decision further directed the government of Pakistan to establish a commission of internationally known and recognized scientists to review and rule on future grid station projects. In addition, the Court ordered WAPDA to immediately introduce public consultation and objection procedures for all projects concerning grid stations and power lines.
Following the decision, NESPAK, as directed, conducted an assessment of the grid project and submitted that sufficient mitigation measures were in place to render any potential adverse impacts negligible. Based on this, the grid station was permitted to be built. (Interview by email, with Ahmad Rafay Alam, a leading environmental lawyer and activist in Pakistan, August 28th, 2015). A supplemental, if not consequential, outcome of this case was the passage of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (PEPA) 1997. The enactment of PEPA 1997 was followed by several environmental policies and initiatives.
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), National Engineering Services of Pakistan (NESPAK)
This landmark case expanded the fundamental rights to life and dignity by interpreting these rights to encompass the right to a healthy environment. This decision is particularly significant as there are no specific provisions in the Pakistani Constitution regarding environmental protection. In relation to environmental law in Pakistan, it is important that the case established the application of the precautionary principle where there is a threat to environmental rights, and emphasized the positive obligations of the State in protecting the right to a clean and healthy environment. (Interview by email, with Ahmad Rafay Alam, a leading environmental lawyer and activist in Pakistan, August 28th, 2015). Furthermore, the ruling placed a notice and comment restriction on government agencies in regards to projects that could potentially pose a public risk. This case is also noteworthy, “because it laid down the foundations of all future public interest litigation brought before courts for environmental protection.” To cite just one example, following this case, the Supreme Court, citing the Zia decision, found in the Salt Miners Case (decided on 12th July, 1994) that the right to have water free from pollution and contamination is a right to life itself.
Finally, a vital contribution of this case which was accepted for consideration by the Court under Article 184 (3), has been setting a precedent which allows for much easier access to the public to approach the superior courts and the subordinate courts on environment related issues.
(Updated August 2015)