MUZAFFARGARH: An unusual construction activity is going on a piece of 82 acres land in mauza Jugmal, Jatoi tehsil. Armed guards man the fort-like wall and do not allow anyone to come close to the premises.

A hoarding erected at the wall carries the wording ‘Punjab Fisheries, Jugmal’.

But villagers living in the vicinity say a sugar mills is being constructed there. Several labourers from the area visit the site for work and they say that inside the walls, buildings are being constructed which have nothing to do with fish farms that are mostly open air ponds.

Ahmed, a labourer , said last week a member of the ruling family in Punjab was here along with his uncle. “Though he did not meet us, but we have got the idea that the site belongs to them.”

He said it was not a secret that a unit of Haseeb Waqas Sugar Mills is being constructed in the area.

Though villagers are not so bothered about a sugar mills in the area, the three sugar mills already functioning in Muzffargarh have been alarmed by the prospects of a fourth sugar mill in the district, and that too owned by a powerful ruling elite.

Of the three sugar mills – Sheikhu Sugar Mills, Tandlianwala Sugar Mills and Fatima Sugar Mills – two have moved the Lahore High Court, Multan bench, seeking stay on the construction of the mills. Their lawyers took plea that the government had imposed ban on the construction of a new sugar mills and shifting of existing sugar mill to any other district vide notification No AEA-111-3-5/2003(vol-111) dated December 06, 2006 and further reported as PLD 2001 Lahore 506 and PLD 2013 Lahore 528.

Muzaffargarh was once a core cotton crop area. The setting up of sugar mills in the last two decades have changed cropping pattern. According to the district agriculture office, this year sugarcane was cultivated on 400,000 acres.

The lawyers of the Fatima Sugar mills and Tandlianwala sugar mills, that moved the Lahore High Court, Multan bench, said the Haseeb Waqas group had no NoC and it was busy in the construction of the mills which was illegal. They also objected to the issue of power supply to a mills by Mepco.

They alleged that the government functionaries were helping the construction of the mills. The court granted stay on May 5.

Local Environment Department officials said they had not been contacted for an NoC regarding environmental impact assessment. Fisheries Department officials also showed ignorance about the Punjab Jugmal Fisheries

When Dawn contacted Haseeb Waqas Companies head office, an official, who only gave his first name as Sohail, said that Brigadier Akram, one of the officials at the head office, was authorized to speak on this issue but he was not available now.

Government machinery:

Villagers said when the land was bought and transferred last year, a local PML-N MNA and the district coordination officer (DCO) had showed utmost interest in the transactions.

A few small time farmers, Ahmed, Rasheed and others said they had sold their land without being coerced and the owner paid them market rate which was Rs600,000 per acre.

District Officer Industries Chaudhry Ahmad Ali said that he had visited the construction site on the orders of his senior officials. He said the mill had not sought any NoC from him.

DCO Hafiz Shoukat Ali said the NoC was granted by the Punjab industries department. He said he would look into the matter to see if the construction was still going on despite a court stay.

Agriculturists’ concerns:

To agriculturists, south Punjab, which is considered a best cotton belt, is slowly turning into a sugarcane estate.

“The reason is that area grows good quality sugarcane and per acre yield is much higher than central and upper Punjab farms,” said Sajid Iqbal Sindhu, the chief executive officer of Green Circles.

He said Rahim Yar Khan, Muzaffargarh, Layyah and Rajanpur districts were newly discovered sugarcane hubs as their per acre yield was far better than than Faisalabad, Okara and Kasur districts.

“Availability of water and humid weather are the reasons behind bumper sugarcane yields,” he said.

Another agriculturalist, Kashif Baloch, however said cotton did not consume much water and too much cultivation of sugarcane would create water shortage besides affecting environment.

A spokesman of the Tandlianwala mills said they would move a contempt of court application in the LHC.

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2015

On a mobile phone? Get the Dawn Mobile App: Apple Store | Google Play