January 29th, 2022
By Ahmed Saeed
While Lahore High Court gave its detailed judgment on the Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA) case, pointing out several legal and procedural defects in acquiring land and other necessary file work prerequisite for the project, Prime Minister Imran Khan himself visited the project site on Friday January 28, to mointor the development process and said that his government would file an appeal in the Supreme Court against the LHC order.
Earlier in its short order, Justice Shahid Karim declared that RUDA had “failed to prepare an independent Master Plan in accordance to the provisions of the Act, 2020 and any further schemes prepared in the absence of a Master Plan are unlawful”. The court also struck down various sections of the RUDA Act 2020, fo example it completely struck down the RUDA amendment ordinance for not being issued in compliance with the pre-conditions mentioned in Article 128 of the Constitution (what does that say exactly).
The court also declared that the notifications issued by the Collectors of Sheikhupura and Lahore to acquire the land for the project null and void.
But after the PM was briefed by the RUDA and Punjab government officials about the pace of work, in a video message which was recorded at the site, he declared, “I have the utmost respect for courts, but the government has not pleaded the case effectively in the high court.” Khan said. He added that the prime objective of the project was to stop the expansion of Lahore.
The prime minister said it is incorrect to say that housing societies will be built under the project. “It will be a modern city which will be constructed at par with Dubai and Malaysia and will expand vertically.”
Enlisting the project’s benefits, the premier said it would save the River Ravi.
“Ravi River will be saved. Barrages will be built to replenish the water table. Treatment plants will be constructed to clean the sewage water before being dumped into the Ravi. Most significantly, it is a project of US 20 billion. No other project of such mammoth value is being constructed elsewhere in the country. It will generate jobs and bring foreign exchange and investors in the country”, the PM said.
PM Khan also dispelled the notion that the project will have a negative impact on the environment. He said that a planned jungle is being grown, which will keep the environment clean.
“Carrying out work on Project is tantamount to contempt.”
Issam Bin Haris, who was appointed as amicus curiae by the court in the RUDA case, said that since the court has declared the project illegal, there is no justification in carrying out any kind of developmental work in the area falling under the project.
Harris said there was a grey area in this regard because the court had declared a project illegal but has not given any injunction to halt the work.
“In my view, if any project has been declared illegal by the court, then carrying out any kind of work will tantamount to contempt of court,” he said.
RUDA board approved non-existent master plan.
The LHC, in its order, noted that the board members of RUDA on October 14, 2020, approved a document deeming it a master plan of the project. However, the court pointed out that the approved document was not a master plan and was merely a feasibility report prepared by a private consultancy firm.
“By scheme or artifice, the members of the Board were cajoled into approval of a Master Plan while none existed. Thus, any decision taken by them in that meeting suffers from misdirection of facts which fed through the rest of the decision making process. Under the circumstances it cannot be conceived that members of RUDA took an informed and intelligent decision to approve the Master Plan of the Project,” the court order read.
Ravi Should be revitalized as per ADB report
The order also rejected the Punjab government’s plea that the project is vital for the revitalization of Ravi River. The court said that RUDA neither had the expertise nor the institutional capacity to do so.
“Like every other living being, rivers have rights. The most fundamental one is the right of free-flowing water that has sufficient oxygen, and land, or riverbanks, for the river’s waters to flow without obstructions”, the court order said.
The court directed the Punjab government to take steps to implement the Asian Development Bank Report that called for natural intervention aimed at the revival of River Ravi.
“River Ravi cries out for its revitalization, and the ADB Report provides the solution. Govt. of Punjab is directed to take steps to implement the ADB Report expeditiously.”
The Govt officials did not make informed decisions
The court lamented that the two government officials- Commissioner of Lahore and District Collector Sheikhupura – did not comply with the procedural formalities and carefully examined the relevant laws before issuing a notification for acquiring the land under section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act 1894.
In his reply to the LHC, Commissioner Lahore said that he issued the notification to acquire land for the Ravi Riverfront project on the request of the Land Acquisition Collector of RUDA.
However, in its order, the court noted that the Commissioner has no idea that there is no Land Acquisition Collector of RUDA and no such request was made to the Collectors.
The court also directed the government officials not to act mechanically before issuing the land acquisition notification.
“The most crucial aspect in my opinion which the Collector is liable to undertake is the alternative uses to which the land can be put, and this should be an important plank of the feasibility undertaken by the Collector of the District. This will require the Collector of the District to hold meetings for the purpose and to sum up his findings in the form of a written statement which will lead to the issuance of the notification under Section 4 of the Act, 1894,” the court order read.
The court also ordered the Punjab government to start amending the land acquisition act, of 1894 to conform with the socio-economic realities of present times and provide for climate justice.
“The amendments should provide for environmental and social impact assessment to conform with the dignity rights. Crucially, a comprehensive legal framework ought to be brought in relation to the acquisition of agricultural and cultivated farmlands, keeping in view the aspect of food security. Any such acquisition must be allowed only under dire and unavoidable circumstances.”, the court noted.