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Indonesians hail ‘unexpected win’ in landmark pollution case

Medan, Indonesia – “I am happy and it was unexpected that we won,” Elisa Sutanudjaja told Al Jazeera, after an Indonesian court ruled against President Joko Widodo and other top officials for failing to protect Jakarta residents from debilitating air pollution.

Sutanudjaja one of the 32 plaintiffs in a landmark “citizen lawsuit” that took to court Widodo, three of his ministers and three provincial governors to ensure clean air in the Indonesian capital.

The lawsuit, which was originally filed in July 2019, sought to address Jakarta’s air pollution, which studies have continually found to be one of the worst in the world.

According to a Lowy Institute report published in 2019, more than 7,000 people die before their time annually in Jakarta due to air pollution. Low birth weights for almost 2,000 newborns were also linked to pollution.

Reading the verdict over Zoom in order to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, Chief Justice H Saifudin Zuhari awarded partial victory to the plaintiffs on Thursday.

The panel of three judges agreed that the defendants bore responsibility for controlling Jakarta’s air pollution. It also took to task the governors of neighbouring West Java and Banten provinces for failing to regulate pollution in their areas, which had, in turn, affected the capital.

The judges granted almost all of the plantiffs’ requests, stating that the defendants had “committed an unlawful act by neglecting to take measures to control air pollution in Jakarta”.

But it stopped short of agreeing with the plaintiffs that this constituted human rights violations.

The judges also singled out the ministry of health for “failing to communicate health risks due to air pollution” when handing down the verdict.

‘A small step’

A number of the plaintiffs told Al Jazeera that they got involved in the case due to their personal experience with the chocking smog in Jakarta, and their concerns about the potential health risks to them and their families.

Chief Justice H Saifudin Zuhri (centre) reads the verdict awarding partial victory to the plaintiffs [Jakarta Clean Air Initiative Coalition via Al Jazeera]

Sutanudjaja said she first worried about the effect of the toxic air in the capital when she got pregnant.

On Thursday she posted a picture of her daughter on social media calling the verdict “a small effort to ensure that this child’s future is better”.

“But I am also aware that this is only a small step towards progress on a very long journey,” she told Al Jazeera. “Especially in making sure that the court’s orders are carried out and implemented properly.”

The court ordered the defendants to ensure that Jakarta’s air complies with applicable ambient air quality standards and to formulate an action plan to control air pollution.

Chief Justice Saifudin also ordered the defendants to implement emissions testing on Jakarta’s polluters, and install equipment that monitors and collects air quality data.

The plaintiffs had previously told Al Jazeera that they were particularly disappointed in the progress of the case during the pandemic when public health was already a concern.

 

“Praise God and a big thumbs up to the legal team who are still young but have amazing knowledge of the law,” Istu Prayogi, another plaintiff, told Al Jazeera. He was diagnosed with spots in his lungs after living in Jakarta in the 1990s.

Jakarta’s pollution is thought to be caused by a range of factors, including vehicle emissions, construction, burning of biomass and other fuels, coal combustion and secondary aerosols such as ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate.

Continual delays

The landmark judgement, which had originally been scheduled to be delivered in May, was postponed eight times due to myriad reasons, including the volume of evidence as well as several members of the court contracting COVID-19.

The delays had prompted some speculation of lobbying behind the scenes.

In response to the ruling on Thursday, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan posted a photo of Jakarta’s skyline and wrote, “Jakarta’s blue skies”.

He said his administration will not appeal the verdict and is “ready to carry out the court’s decision to improve the air quality in Jakarta.”

Anies had previously told the media in 2019 that: “The people filing the lawsuit have also contributed to the decline in air quality [in the capital].”

The lawsuit, which was originally filed in July 2019, sought to address Jakarta’s air pollution, which studies have continually found to be one of the worst in the world [File: Bay Ismoyo/AFP]

But it appears not all the defendants agree with Anies.

On Thursday evening, Sigit Relianto, the acting director-general of Pollution Control at the Environment and Forestry Ministry told the media that there were plans for an appeal.

“We want to appeal. According to the legal procedure, there is still an opportunity to appeal and we are going to use it,” he said.

Bondan Andriyanu, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, told Al Jazeera that those involved in the case were dismayed at the news.

“It is not even 24 hours after the verdict that said that the citizens of Jakarta had won the case and now we get this sad news that the Ministry for the Environment and Forestry is going to appeal,” said Bondan. He had been supporting the plaintiffs at the trial and accompanying them to court.

Bondan added that there are also fears that the president could appeal as “it is common that the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry and the president speak with one voice.” The president’s office has not yet issued a statement on the matter.

Faldo Maldini, the staff of the Minister of the State Secretary, also told the media on Thursday that he was waiting for a review from the environment ministry in order to determine the next steps.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs such as Sutanudjaja expressed their disappointment on social media.

 

“What do we need to say about Jakarta’s air for the central government to implement the court’s decision?” she posted on Friday.

“How many children need to get asthma? How many more must die from pollution so that there is no appeal?”

The court also ordered the defendants to pay court fees of IDR 4,255,000 (approximately $300) as part of the verdict.

Ayu Eza Tiara, legal counsel for the plaintiffs, said her clients and the advocacy team Jakarta Clean Air Initiative Coalition, consider the court’s verdict as a “wise decision.”

“It is clear that the government was negligent in controlling air pollution,” she said.

“We will also work to make sure that the government now fulfils its obligations.”




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