LHC scraps multi-billion rupee River Ravi project

Justice Karim says project’s master plan not properly approved, declares land acquisition unlawful

In a big setback for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, the Lahore High Court (LHC) has dismissed the multi-billion rupee River Ravi project and restrained the authorities concerned from pursuing work on the project.

Justice Shahid Karim of the LHC announced the reserved verdict saying that the “Section 4 of the Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA) act is contradictory to the constitution.” He added that agricultural land had been unlawfully acquired to use in the project.

The court held that the project was being built without support from the provincial government. It added that the master plan of the project had also not been approved.

The Punjab government has decided to challenge the verdict before the appellate forum.

The River Ravi Urban Development project is a 12 to 14 billion dollars project under which a new city like Dubai would be established in the western side of the provincial capital. Prime Minister Imran Khan on several occasions had admired the project and termed it a game changer in the country. He had planned to build a city like Dubai with skyscrapers.

In response to the verdict, RUDA CEO Imran Amin said that they respected the courts and were legally looking at the decision of the Supreme Court regarding the project.

In a joint statement after a meeting with Special Assistant to the Chief Minister of Punjab (SACM) Hassan Khawar at RUDA’s head office, Amin said that the decision of the court was misrepresented in the media while on the contrary, the facts in the SC decision’s on the status of RUDA were recognized.

“Moreover, instructions were given to run the projects better,” said Amin.

During the meeting the SACM said, “We will comply with the court’s order and RUDA will continue its work in light of the court’s decision.”

“This project is a milestone for a bright future for the country and the nation,” he added.

“Additionally, cities with world-class facilities are being built, projects like RUDA are essential for population control in big cities, elimination of environmental pollution and provision of better facilities,” said the SACM.

The RUDA CEO meanwhile said that the development work on the Ravi project, Chahar Bagh, was in full swing, which would provide a world-class standard of living to the citizens of Pakistan.

Last year in January, the LHC stayed the process of land acquisition by RUDA for the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project without holding an environmental impact assessment of the project and sought details from the authorities concerned.

The court, at one stage, had rejected the master plan approved by the authorities concerned, questioning how a black-listed consultant could approve it. The court had also made serious remarks about the environmental situation of the city.

RUDA hired a number of lawyers for representation in the high court and barrister Ali Zafar was a prominent one amongst them who argued in favor of the project but the verdict was quite different from what they were expecting. Advocate General Punjab Ahmed Awais also defended the project besides the legal team but all efforts proved in vain.

During the proceedings, Zafar had argued that the water level was going down and the people were using water to wash their cars. He also explained the objectives and purpose of RUDA, submitting that the city of Lahore was expanding in all directions in an unplanned and haphazard manner with the mushroom growth of small housing societies contributing to an environmental and sociological disaster.

He argued that the population of Pakistan increased from 133 to 220 million whereas the rate of population growth in Lahore increased three times more. In order to curtail this impending disaster, the creation of this project was necessary, he had apprised the court.

Zafar also presented the salient features of the Ravi River Front Project, saying that it would ensure compliance with all environmental protocols resulting in an important step forward in Pakistan for battling against climate change.

He submitted the salient features of RUDA and argued that the project included mechanisms for water conservation, groundwater recharge, flood protection and innovative approaches to mitigate pollution. The project would employ rain harvesting technology, metering systems for water use, construction of barrages on the river and wastewater treatment, which were an integral part of the master plan.

He had argued that the case against RUDA was filed by certain vested interests and private housing schemes who did not want the planned city to come into existence. He stated that the Ravi Urban Development Act, 2020 had been challenged on the ground that it was taking away the powers of the local authority under article 140-A of the constitution.

The farmers and others had challenged the River Ravi Urban Development project before the court through their counsel advocate Sheraz Zaka and advocate Waqar A. Sheikh. The petitioners argued that the impugned act was unreasonable and ultra vires to the Local Government Act 2019 and article 140-A of the constitution.

The counsels contended that the impugned law was also in conflict with the Lahore Development Authority Act 1975. Zaka said that Punjab would be deprived of over 100,000 acres fertile land, which would aggravate food insecurity.

They submitted that RUDA had been established for grabbing land from farmers and other land owners, pointing out that the project had not been established with funds meant for public purpose but loans had been obtained from the banks for acquiring land.

They argued that RUDA appeared to not be formed for river Ravi rather was a parallel authority of the government to patronize the developers associated with the ruling party-Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). They further contended that the basic purpose of the impugned act was land grabbing through the state for the welfare of a few developers. They prayed the court to declare the establishment of RUDA as unconstitutional and also set aside all the notifications.

 

Fida Hussnain is a correspondent covering judiciary, politics, business and health issues. He is also a feature writer and researcher with major work on freedom of press in Pakistan. He tweets @fidahassanain and can be reached at fidahassanain@gmail.com.

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