December 5, 2020
By Ahmed Saeed & Hamid Riaz
“We are working class people; I myself have worked tirelessly stitching baby nappies and cleaning people’s houses to feed myself and my family,” says Raffia Masood, a resident of Khokar village. The locality is one of those places which the locals say may become part of the government’s Ravi Urban Development Project. Raffia’s family is largely dependent upon her earnings especially with two disabled daughters and it is not easy to make ends meet.
“Only after years of saving was I able to construct a four marla house and now there are rumors that the government will take this away from me,” she laments. “Tell me, where should I go? We do not even have enough to eat – how will we be able to construct another house?”
The Ravi Urban Development Project is the government’s grand scheme of creating a city outside Lahore and a stretch of housing on both sides of the ancient but dying Ravi River. The project was envisaged in 2005 by the PML-Q government. Afterwards several regimes have played with the possibility of executing it but none have succeeded because of the massive financial resources required to carry out this ‘grand scheme’.
Moreover, those who live on the land which has been chosen to host the city are less than willing to pack up and move out only because of the whims of someone from the uppermost echelons of power. The government may have plans to take over the land, but they have been living here since ages – sometimes for generations and they will not just give it up.
The government’s dream is simple but it requires a lot. The river Ravi will be ‘revived’ by cleaning the existing water and forcing it to run through a concrete channel. On either side of the channel, housing will be constructed. According to the proposed plan, around 46 kilometers of land on the banks of these channels will be developed into ‘heavenly cities’. But a dream is a dream and is far from what is the ground reality.
The government also plans on setting up billion dollar sewage treatment plants to clean the Ravi, which in its present form has been reduced to a flowing sewage dump. According to the government’s existing plans the project will be completed in three distinct phases with an overall cost of over $41billion. The first phase alone is to cost about Rs5000billion. The execution will be done via a public-private partnership implying that the government will ‘acquire’ and provide the land and stakeholders from the private sector responsible for pouring money into the actual development and construction. Even though the government has not formally announced who these private sector stakeholders will be, it may not be hard to guess some of them, especially with the Bahria Town security guarding the Ravi Urban Development Authority’s office in Gulberg.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken a special interest in this project, he is of the view that this project will help stimulate the entire economy of the country. But in order to fulfill the prime minister’s dream, the dreams of thousands of farmers, mill owners and ordinary residents who currently own the land, will end up being broken.
MIT qualified urban planner, Fauzia Qureshi, says that the entire project spreads to an area of about 100,000 acres of land, most of which is currently occupied by small private holders. Fauzia estimates that over 100,000 residents are currently living in the area slotted for this project with many more dependent on this land for their livelihood. All of these people will essentially have to be uprooted to erect these planned cities.
One of these residents is Tehmina Ahmad who explains that the residents of her village have been extremely fearful ever since they have heard about the government’s plan. “Several people have died of heart attacks after the news of this project spread. This is how much our lives have been impacted,” she says.
Though several past governments have also shown intent to initiate this project, the residents are particularly afraid of the current regime’s intentions because of the passage of the draconian Ravi Urban development Bill which empowers officials of the Ravi Urban Development Authority to “summarily evict” residents they consider to be “unauthorized”.
The bill also bars the courts from intervening in the workings of this process and offers a virtual blanket immunity to RUDA officials even if evidence of wrongdoings is unearthed.
The land identified for these proposed cities is extremely fertile and thousands of farmers working this land provide fresh vegetables, wheat and milk to the citizens of Lahore and its adjoining areas. If the government gets its way this fertile land will be converted into a concrete jungle incapable of sustaining plant life.
“If the bulldozers come, it will be like a war,” vows Abdul Majeed, a land owning farmer from the area. “This land represents the life and livelihood of the people. People will be willing to kill and be killed for this land if the government tries to snatch it away from them.”
In addition to land owners several thousand landless peasants who till this land also share the same sentiment.
Malik Riaz, a peasant whose family has been working the land for generations says that if the land is converted into a city, peasants like him will be forced to beg on the streets.
Fauzia Qureshi says that Lahore does not have the problems which the government says it will solve through this project. “The government should focus on increasing the population density of the lands already developed by the Lahore Development Authority instead of aiming to create new cities,” she says. “Several of the housing societies developed by LDA are vacant. The government should focus on getting people settled there.”
She also reiterates the need for vertical development something which Imran Khan has even agreed to in the past.
Despite such massive criticism from distinct layers of the society officials of the RUDA dispel rumors of any wrongdoings. According to them the project is currently in the planning stage and no residents have been asked to leave their land. “I promise you not a single resident will be made homeless as a result of our project,” asserts an official of the RUDA.
But Muhammad Abid, a realtor, working in the proposed area of the project says that the government has started with the data collection phase of land acquisition. He asserts that the government wants to buy the land from existing residents at almost a quarter of the price which the land can fetch in the open market.
“If this was a public welfare project we would not be raising these objections,” he says. “But according to the government itself this is a commercial venture and if the government wants to become a businessman it should compensate us like one.”
According to Muhammad Abid the government’s offer to buy the land from existing occupants at DC rates and then selling it at market price is nothing short of theft.
Vaqar Zakariya, river expert, environmental consultant and lead author of the Asian Development Bank’s report on the revitalization of the Ravi River, challenges the plans of the government from an entirely different lens.
He explains that the government’s approach towards cleaning the Ravi is misguided. According to him cleaning the Ravi is not merely about setting up water filtration plants at the Ravi itself. Instead plans should be formulated to clean the waterways which fall into the Ravi.
“You cannot have sewage, industrial, residential and medical waste being dumped into the storm water drains that feed the Ravi and then dream of a clean river by setting filtration plants at the river itself,” he points out. “The source of the problem of water pollution lies somewhere else and not at the river.”
Even though civil society has been speaking out about these issues, despite all these contentions the government is adamant on moving forward with the project in its current form ignoring warnings from multiple stakeholders.