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 senior officials for failing to protect Jakarta residents from debilitating air pollution.
Sutanudjaja, one of 32 plaintiffs in a historic “citizens’ lawsuit” that took Widodo, three of his ministers and three provincial governors to court 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 annually before their time in Jakarta due to air pollution. The low birth weight of nearly 2,000 newborns was also linked to contamination.
Reading the verdict on Zoom to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, Chief Justice H Saifudin Zuhari awarded the plaintiffs a partial victory on Thursday.
The three-judge panel agreed that the defendants had a responsibility to control Jakarta’s air pollution. He also berated the governors of neighboring West Java and Banten provinces for failing to regulate pollution in their areas, which, in turn, had affected the capital.
The judges granted almost all of the defendants’ requests, stating that the defendants had “committed an unlawful act by neglecting to take measures to control air pollution in Jakarta.”
But it did not agree with the plaintiffs that this constituted a human rights violation.
The judges also singled out the health ministry for “failing to communicate the health risks due to air pollution” when rendering the verdict.
‘One small step’
Several of the plaintiffs told Al Jazeera that they became involved in the case because of their personal experience with the suffocating smog in Jakarta and their concerns about potential health risks to themselves and their families.
Sutanudjaja said that the first thing that worried her was the effect of the toxic air in the capital when she became pregnant.
On Thursday, she posted a photo of her daughter on social media, calling the verdict “a small effort to ensure that this girl’s future is better.”
“But I am also aware that this is only a small step towards progress on a very long journey,” he told Al Jazeera. “Especially to make sure the court’s orders are carried out and properly implemented.”
The court ordered the defendants to ensure that Jakarta’s air meets 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 tests on polluters in Jakarta and install equipment that monitors and collects data on air quality.
The plaintiffs had previously told Al Jazeera that they were particularly disappointed by the progress of the case during the pandemic when public health was already a concern.
A great, great day for air pollution activists and environmental law advocates in Indonesia – Jakarta’s court issued a verdict requiring local and central governments to act on air pollution. https://t.co/HNUFz0bs6P
– Lauri Myllyvirta (@laurimyllyvirta) September 16, 2021
“Praise God and a big thumbs up to the legal team that is still young but has amazing knowledge of the law,” Istu Prayogi, another plaintiff, told Al Jazeera. He was diagnosed with spots on his lungs after living in Jakarta in the 1990s.
Jakarta’s pollution is believed to be caused by a variety of factors, including vehicle emissions, construction, the burning of biomass and other fuels, the burning of coal, and secondary aerosols such as ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulfate.
The landmark sentence, which was originally scheduled to be handed down in May, was postponed eight times due to myriad reasons, including the volume of evidence, as well as multiple members of the court contracting COVID-19.
The delays had sparked some speculation about behind-the-scenes lobbying.
In response to Thursday’s ruling, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan posted a photo of the Jakarta skyline and wrote: “Jakarta’s blue skies.”
He said his administration will not appeal the verdict and is “ready to execute the court’s decision to improve air quality in Jakarta.”
Anies had previously told the media in 2019 that: “The people who filed the lawsuit have also contributed to the decline in air quality. [in the capital]. “
But it seems that not all of the defendants agree with Anies.
On Thursday night, Sigit Relianto, acting director general of Pollution Control at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, 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, an energy and climate activist with Greenpeace Indonesia, told Al Jazeera that those involved in the case were shocked by the news.
“Not even 24 hours have passed after the verdict that the citizens of Jakarta had won the case and now we have this sad news that the Ministry of Environment and Forests is going to appeal,” Bondan said. He had been supporting the plaintiffs at trial and accompanying them to court.
Bondan added that it is also feared that the president may appeal since “it is common for the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the president to speak in unison.” The president’s office has yet to issue a statement on the matter.
Faldo Maldini, the Minister’s staff of the Secretary of State, also told the media on Thursday that he was awaiting a review from the Environment Ministry to determine next steps.
Meanwhile, plaintiffs like Sutanudjaja expressed their disappointment on social media.
Kudu sebutek apa udara Jakarta agar pemerintah pusat menjalankan putusan pengadilan? Kudu seberapa banyak anak yg sakit asthma? Kudu berapa banyak lagi yg meninggal krn polusi supaya tidak banding? https://t.co/2bcJdBlaoB
– Elisa (@elisa_jkt) September 17, 2021
“What do we have to say about the Jakarta air for the central government to implement the court’s decision?” posted on Friday.
How many children need asthma? How many more must die from the pollution for there to be 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 at the Jakarta Clean Air Initiative Coalition view the court’s verdict as a “wise decision.”
“It is clear that the government was negligent in controlling air pollution,” he said.
“We will also work to ensure that the government now meets its obligations.”