Anti-haze law is new, but has potential

An Indonesian firefighter surveys burning peat land in in the Kapuas district in Central Kalimantan province.
An Indonesian firefighter surveys burning peat land in in the Kapuas district in Central Kalimantan province. PHOTO: AFP

The observations in the report about the challenges to enforcing the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 ("Cloud hangs over enforcement of anti-haze law"; last Friday) seem to be quite correct.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that the law does not address some practical drawbacks.

• Policing

The law is designed to give the Singapore authorities policing powers and powers to punish companies behind the haze in Singapore - even if their actions take place overseas.

Many companies directly or indirectly contributing to the haze are based in Singapore or have assets and/or operations in Singapore.

• Widespread practice of burning

The law targets companies which pollute and, crucially, those that condone pollution by other companies or individuals that they have management control over. Condoning means, in simple terms, failing to prevent or stop burning.

Therefore, any company that has management control over a polluter and condones that polluting may be guilty of an offence under the law, unless it takes steps to stamp out the practice.

• Identifying the culprits

The law provides the authorities with wide powers to obtain information from any person in or outside of Singapore.

The National Environment Agency's director-general of environmental protection has the power to issue a notice requiring any person to provide information and documents needed, including information on land ownership.

The courts have the power to require notified people passing through or in Singapore to remain in Singapore. Those ignoring a notice may be imprisoned and/or fined.

Targeting the right individuals within companies which pollute, or whose subsidiaries and/or suppliers pollute, should allow needed information to be obtained. Requiring companies to provide information on their concessions avoids any need to rely on the Indonesian authorities.

•Indonesia's complex land ownership and usage rights

The law is drafted to deal with this difficulty. It is not necessary to prove ownership of the land causing the pollution.

It is sufficient to prove that a company occupies that land. Even if a company occupies the land with other parties - such as local farmers - the law presumes that the company is responsible for the pollution, unless the company can prove otherwise.

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 is a well-drafted piece of legislation.

While it is true that we have yet to see a major case brought against the culprits of the haze, the law is still new, and gathering evidence, as well as building a good case, takes time.

Samuel Sharpe

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2015, with the headline 'Anti-haze law is new, but has potential'. Print Edition | Subscribe