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Haze Bill: Have we done enough?

10 Jul Haze Bill: Have we done enough?

Harsher penalties will give the proposed Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill more bite, said Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ (SIIA) Deputy Director and Fellow Chua Chin Wei during an interview with Channel NewsAsia (CNA) on July 7, 2014, after Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan proposed toughened amendments to the Bill in Parliament the same day.

Mr Chua also suggested allowing third-party organisations such as public hospitals, consumer groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to represent individuals affected by the haze, who otherwise may face greater difficulty seeking legal recourse for the damage suffered.

CNA: Will the changes to toughen punishments give the Bill more bite?

Chua: The clear and short answer is yes. When the Bill was first circulated for public consultation earlier this year under the section of Criminal Liability, it proposed a penalty amount of $300,000. If prompt actions are not taken by the offending entity, the penalty may increase to $450,000.

The Bill now calls for a penalty of $100,000 per day, subject to a cap of $2 million. This new upper limit addresses concerns that if the penalty amount is too little, big corporates that earn millions each year may not take the Bill seriously, and will continue to clear land with fire. I would say that this revised provision not only has more bite, it is also balanced and targeted.

CNA: On the topic of harsher penalties, the Bill aims to expose guilty parties liable to civil action by affected individuals, companies or industries. What are your thoughts on this?

Chua: It is definitely a welcome provision. In other countries, individuals can take class actions to seek recourse for damages suffered. However, we must recognise the limitation that it is not always easy to determine the extent of damage suffered by individuals. In the case of companies or industries, such as outdoor restaurants (or) travel agents, one can make certain estimates based on reduction in revenue.
That been said, legal representation is not always straightforward, especially for the individuals. They may lack the resources or capacity to bring civil actions against errant companies. Hence, the government could consider if it may like to allow certain organisations to act on behalf of those aggrieved by the haze. These could include environmental NGOs, consumer groups and public agencies such as Singapore Tourism Board and public hospitals.

CNA: The Bill now defines the owner of the land to include anyone with a valid licence or a permit to carry out operations, or one who has an agreement with the landowner. Will this address concerns over the complicated land concession issues in Indonesia?

Chua: To some extent, it will. The new definition casts the judicial net wider. It is capable of catching not just the land owners, but also the related parties such as employees, agents or even partners.

One of the main problems over land ownership is that there are overlapping land concessions. One piece of land can be owned by several parties. This arises because central and local governments can issue permits for the same plot of land. Within the government framework, different ministries can allocate land as well. Sometimes, even community leaders can have authority over the land titles. To add to the complication, this information may not be probably consolidated and updated at the country level.

In the next revision of the Bill, the government could consider if it wants to make explicit that overlapping concession is not accepted as a defence or excuse. These could help to nudge the private sectors operating on the ground to see the need to have a collective fire management plan.

CNA: As Minister Balakrishnan pointed out, the haze is not only Singapore’s problem. It’s an ASEAN problem. Indonesia has yet to ratify the transboundary haze agreement. What can the region do to find a long-term solution?

Chua: I must say that there is no clear silver-bullet solution in sight. We have grappled with the haze issue for over two decades. In other countries which have experienced transboundary pollution, similar efforts would often call for a multi-stakeholder approach, involving governments, private sectors and NGOs, and the public at large.

But that is not to say there is no progress in ASEAN over the years. At the government level, leaders from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore endorsed the Haze Monitoring System (HMS) last year. The system is meant to compile information such as hotspot locations and concession maps. With more information made public, we would be able to know where fires are happening, and who might be responsible for that piece of land.

But to date, the concession maps have not been submitted. It would certainly help if Indonesia’s outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono could lead the implementation of the HMS among the countries involved within his term this year. This would be a strong statement from Indonesia that it is willing to be transparent and bent on taking actions against companies that continue to clear land with fire.  The locals living nearest to the hotspots would benefit the most from the implementation.

CNA:. What’s your assessment of how ASEAN has dealt with this issue so far?

Chua: ASEAN has dealt with the issue in a fair and measured manner. Under the Transboundary Haze Agreement, a Pollution Control Fund has also been established in order to help fund the implementation of the agreement, with an initial value of $500,000. The agreement also includes the establishment of a coordinating centre to undertake the many operational activities that arise from the Agreement. Singapore has on several occasions offered assistance such as aircraft for cloud seeding and transportation of fire fighters. There is certainly room for governments, the private sector and NGOs to consider ways for greater transboundary cooperation.