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ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the newly appointed provincial cabinet of Punjab to reconsider the previous government’s scheme of converting a barren stretch of southern Punjab into a forest through private-public partnership.

“The cabinet of Punjab will reconsider the policy to plant trees in southern Punjab and if the new government approved the same, the understanding given to the earlier parties for the purpose will remain intact and in case of the change of policy, no party will have any vested right,” said an order dictated by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar.

The chief justice was heading a three-judge Supreme Court bench that had taken up a petition moved by the ECO Watch Trust through its chairman Muhammad Imran Haider. The petitioner had highlighted an alarming state of forests throughout Pakistan and flagrant violation of the Forest Act while forming a private company to implement the policy through private-public partnership.

Senior counsel Barrister Ali Zafar said the previous government of Punjab had created a firm, South Punjab Forest Company (SPFC), which he was representing, through a policy decision for attracting private investment and growing trees on 134,995 acres of barren and saline land in the southern part of the province.

CJP says new government may be able to find better terms with the relevant company

The company was required to carry out feasibility for attracting investment from the private sector worth Rs74 billion keeping in view the international models as developed in China and many other countries, the counsel argued.

The private sector had to clean up the land to plant over 40 million trees of local species, the counsel said, adding that 30 per cent of the land would remain forest, whereas cropping had to be done in the rest of 70pc area, meaning that the company would keep on growing trees and then sell them in the market at the same time.

But at the expiry of the scheme after 15 years, the company has to return the entire land to the government with 100pc forest cover.

The chief justice, however, observed that the policy might seem to be good and he himself might be convinced with it, but the court was not persuaded that the entire work should be executed through a private company.

The chief justice observed that the court would not accept the previous government’s policy of creating private companies for the execution of different projects.

Justice Umar Ata Bandial observed that the concessions or agreements granted to certain companies would remain intact if the new government approved the same.

Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan said the court was not striking down any agreement by sending it back to the new cabinet for approval.

About the SPFC, the chief justice observed that it would swim or sink depending on the decision that the new government would take about it, adding that the new government might be able to find better terms through renegotiations.

The CJP observed that he felt that too much concession had been given to the company.

Deputy Attorney General Sohail Mahmood informed the court that the federal government planted 30 million saplings of different species across the country during a campaign in 2017 and intended to plant 100m more in the coming years.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2018