April 11, 2023
By Hamza Saeed
Pakistani authorities are evicting thousands of farmers around Lahore under the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project (RRUDP) while the farmers face intimidation for pursuing legal recourse against what they term is forcible seizure of their lands, stated a report published by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) published today, April 11.
The international human rights watchdog provided that the government is seizing property, 85 percent of which is agricultural land occupied by nearly one million farmers, laborers, and small business owners along the Ravi River. Affected farmers who have challenged the legality of the land seizures have faced intimidation and criminal charges brought by the Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA), provincial authorities, and project developers, even as these legal challenges remain pending in court.
Since 2020, the authorities have criminally charged more than 100 farmers with resisting or refusing to hand over land they occupied. Farmers have been forcibly evicted, and accounts by farmers along with corroborating photos and video show evidence of intimidation, harassment, and the use of force.
The report notes that in January 2022, the Lahore High Court (LHC) ruled that the RRUDP unconstitutional as it violated domestic laws concerning the acquisition of land, the process for compensating those displaced, and the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA). However, the following month, the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan partially overruled the high court’s verdict, allowing the government to continue development only on the land it had already acquired and for which it had paid compensation. However, farmers and activists have since continued to allege that RUDA is continuing to forcibly seize land in spite of the SC order.
In its report, the HRW urged Pakistani authorities to enforce environmental protections and reform colonial-era laws that grant the government broad powers to acquire land for private as well as public use, and emphasized that the government has an obligation to compensate for the loss of land and provide for the resettlement and rehabilitation of those displaced.
The organization highlighted that Pakistan’s land acquisition process came under scrutiny after the SC raised concerns about the lack of adequate compensation for landowners. Although the country’s constitution guarantees citizens the right to own property, there are no criteria for determining market-based compensation for land seized under the public domain. The lack of such a framework violates the international human rights covenant, according to the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The UN also maintains that forced evictions contravene human rights.
The report states that the Ravi River project has attracted criticism due to its environmental and ecological impact, with some experts warning that flooding could result from the construction of barrages and dams on the river. Pakistan has faced food security problems in recent years, with the percentage of land used for agriculture falling from 54% in 1972 to 35% in 2009 in the greater Lahore area. The Lahore High Court has ruled that only land that is not being cultivated may be seized.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also criticized the project, citing findings by the Lahore Conservation Society which note that the proposed changes are ecologically unsustainable. While RUDA has claimed that the project will increase green cover per an EIA conducted by the authority, the HRW notes that activists and lawyers have questioned the credibility of the said assessment which was carried out by a non-registered environmental consultant.
In Pakistan, the percentage of land used for agriculture has declined from 54% in 1972 to 35% in 2009 in the greater Lahore area, as rapid urban development has increased. This trend threatens the country’s food security, which has already been exacerbated by rising inflation and climate change. The unchecked authority of the government to acquire agricultural land for urban development could have serious implications for the country. The Lahore High Court has ruled that only land that is not being cultivated may be seized, highlighting the need for the government to respect citizens’ rights to their land.
In lieu of the concerns raised by the SC and the UN, the HRW urged the government to establish clear criteria for determining compensation for seized land, to ensure transparency in conducting EIAs using registered consultants with proven experience. Furthermore, the watchdog held that the government must balance the legitimate objectives of development projects against the potential negative impacts they may have, particularly on land and food security to ensure that the RRUDP is implemented sustainably and with guaranteed protection of the rights of citizens.