The Supreme Court has ordered the provision of gas to villages situated within 5 km of gas fields as promised in an unimplemented directive issued in 2003 by the then Prime Minister. This is just one of the boons that could flow out of the recent judgment for the large number of under-privileged voiceless communities that had been left out in the cold by successive governments, thrown to the mercy of unethical oil and gas exploration and production companies.

The oil and gas exploration and production takes place in some of the poorest districts of Pakistan and the multi-million dollar projects are run by super-rich companies that are legally bound to contribute towards the welfare of the people, protection of environment and development of the area they are licensed to operate in. The Supreme Court found that the federal, provincial and local governments had failed to ensure performance of the obligations of these companies.

In fact, going by the way different tiers of successive governments have gone about managing this task, it is obvious that the well-being of some of the least-privileged citizens of Pakistan doesn’t figure anywhere in their scheme of things; citizens who are heirs to rich resources and wouldn’t be so poor if they received even the paltry benefits granted to them in contracts signed by the Government of Pakistan with these oil and gas companies. They would actually be prosperous if our governments didn’t throw away their rich resources to these companies for peanuts.

While it might take some time before a leadership emerges on the political horizon that puts the interest of Pakistani citizens before the profits of these environmentally and socially irresponsible companies, the least that the governments could do was to ensure that the oil and gas companies fulfilled their contractually mandated obligations for the benefit of the people and natural environment. But the governments have been least interested in doing that and, through a suo moto notice, the Supreme Court had to step in to fill the vacuum. Should the court have looked the other way and waited for the government to someday wake up to its responsibility?

Much has been said about the suo moto jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and confrontation between the executive and the judiciary, with the bulk of our ‘legal experts’ and opinion makers consistently trying to paint the Supreme Court as the culprit in this tussle, blaming its pro-active approach for creating obstruction in the way of smooth functioning of the government in place. The discussion on the topic has generally hovered around irrelevant details and technical nit-picking while not much attention has been paid to what the fight has been all about.

Though a comprehensive reading of the related judgments is ideally required to decipher the fault-lines around which the Supreme Court considered it necessary to intervene in what has been traditionally considered the exclusive domain of the executive, for those who might find it difficult to undertake the extensive exercise, this judgment of a three-member bench of the Supreme Court issued last Friday might prove useful in bringing clarity to the issue.

Authored by Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja, the judgment puts in perspective not only the executive-corporate nexus but also demonstrates the pro-people nature of the suo-moto jurisdiction exercised by the independent judiciary with a gusto that ruffled the feathers of not only ministers, bureaucrats and rich corporations but also our ‘legal experts’ and opinion makers. It is no longer a secret that our government officials speak more for personal and corporate interests rather than for the people they represent. So what are the critics objecting to the Supreme Court’s intervention on behalf of these poor and forgotten citizens essentially saying? That no one should watch out for them and the judiciary should turn a blind eye to the flouting of their fundamental rights granted by the Constitution?

The origin of the case could be traced back to a speech by the President of the Tando Adam Bar Association, Abdul Hakeem Khoso Advocate made before Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry who was there to administer oath to the office-bearers of the Bar. Mr Khoso said, “Our district (Sanghar) has a number of oil and gas fields and the oil and gas exploring companies are acting in violation of law and the terms and conditions of the agreements which they executed with the Government of Pakistan whereby they are bound to control environmental pollution, provide jobs and gas facility to the local people…and spend specified amounts on infrastructure…and the betterment of the people.” The speech was marked to the Human Rights Cell for a report, and subsequently the matter was put up in Court as a petition under article 184 (3) of the Constitution. Justice Khawaja deals with the matter with some detail in his judgment:

“The significance of Article 184 (3) of the Constitution in enforcing the fundamental rights of the people all over Pakistan without the necessity of having a petitioner from each district is evident from the present case. In the ordinary course it would have been extremely difficult logistically and financially for a public-spirited resident of District Sanghar to file and pursue legal recourse in the Civil Courts or in constitutional Courts. Even if such recourse had been taken it would have remained confined to issues relating to District Sanghar. It is only on account of Article 184 (3) of the Constitution and the willingness and ability of the Court to take notice suo moto that the entire country spread over more than 105 Districts has been brought within the compass of one initiative taken by a Taluka Bar Association and then positively dealt by the Human Rights Cell of the Court and then in Court hearings. It should be obvious from the facts of this case that conventional methods of seeking legal redress can be grossly inadequate for people without sufficient means, particularly when they may be pitted against more resourceful individuals and corporate entities.”

Obviously, there is more to the executive-judiciary story than what our ‘legal experts’ and opinion makers would have us believe.

The writer is a freelance columnist.