CHAUDHRY Sajjad Warraich was happy with the produce he was getting from his farmland and orchards, which lay about five kilometres from the Kala Khatai-Narang Mandi road, until a few weeks back when he learnt that his land had been included in the controversial Ravi Riverfront Urban Project, allegedly for the benefit of a handful of rich and powerful real estate developers.
“The PTI government forcibly included 500 acres of my family in the project. It gave us no information until March 2, when officials told me they had acquired the land and gave me a notice that the government was bound to send me two weeks earlier,” says Warraich, who is in his 60s, while sitting in his lychee orchard in Eyyah Nagar Kalan village in Ferozewala tehsil of Sheikhupura.
A tattered Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf flag flutters atop a peepal tree near his outhouse. The party he had supported in the 2018 elections is now snatching away his home and property from him to give to its mightier and wealthier business allies in the name of public good and development.
Warraich’s outhouse is more than two kilometres from Ravi’s riverbed that can’t even be seen with naked eyes from his home. Besides lychee, Warraich has got mango, lemon and guava orchards whose cost, according to him, is not being paid to him.
At places his family has acquired farmland as far away as 5km from the river, which makes a curve near his land. “In the name of taking only the riverbed for the project, the government has occupied our farmlands.”
Warraich has pieces of land in Eyyah Nagar Kalan, Eyyah Nagar Khurd and Rakh Dhanoya villages, and the whole of the last village has been acquired by the government without giving any notice before acquiring land.
The government has reportedly acquired over 4,300 acres in 16 villages of Ferozewala tehsil in Sheikhupura district. Besides the three villages mentioned, it has acquired land in Bokanwala, Kherdinpur, Chohan, Kachi Kotli, Qadian, Rasoolpur, Dhanoya, Shediwal, Ratniwal, Babakwal, Nehraypur, Jada and Dandian villages by imposing Section 5 of the Land Acquisition Act 1894 of the colonial era.
About 15 families live in Nehraypur, a small village whose all 63 acres have been acquired for the first phase of the project, which is eight to nine kilometres long, says Warraich. The total length of the project is 46km, all along the Ravi.
“They (officials) didn’t even mention our houses and are offering us the price of land only,” says Nishan Ali, a farmer from the Nehraypur village, all of whose residents are not from landowning families. Haji Nausher Ali, who Dawn met on the way, also lives there with his family and cultivates about 11 acres.
Most villagers losing their land to the project are small holders. The maximum price of land has been fixed at Rs1.28 million per acre and it is Rs200,000 per acre for the riverbed. “The market value is way more than what we are being paid,” he says.
Warraich has moved the court against acquisition of his land. He rues the loss of farmland, saying housing schemes should not be set up on agricultural land. He has grown chilli, beetroot and onion in the fields while his guava orchard has 10,000 trees spread over 37 acres. All these products feed the city of Lahore.
Mian Mustafa Rasheed of the PML-F, who has led protests against the project in Lahore, says the government has cleverly taken greater part of land from Sheikhupura district’s villages and spared most of Lahore in the first phase. “About 313 acres from seven villages have been taken from Lahore tehsil. Earlier, the government had a bigger plan and my own 19 acres in Saggian Wassanpura were included in it. However, it was spared later on.”
The villages of Lahore whose land has been acquired for the project are Harnainpura, Jia Musa, Bhamma, Targah, Shahdara, Karorwar and Hardo Jaba villages.
Rasheed says that acquisition of land is illegal as the government gave newspaper ads in this regard on February 26 and acquired land on March 3 without passage of the notice period of 15 days.
The government has invoked Section 4 multiple times to deceive the public and the courts. “Not a single farmer is ready to give his land for the riverfront project.”
Environmental lawyer Ahmad Rafay Alam, who is involved in the cases against the project, says the last PML-N government had introduced regulations in the environment protection department after petitions were filed against the Orange Line train scheme under which any company applying for a No Objection Certificate (NOC) would have to present an environment impact assessment (EIA) report by a registered consultant. “And there are no registered environmental consultants here. The EIA on the riverfront project has been prepared by the Engineering Consultancy Services Punjab (ECSP), a subsidiary of the government,” he explains.
He says that without an authentic, independent EIA by a registered consultant, the NOC can’t be issued to the project and without the certificate, no land acquisition can be done.
Alam says that Meinhardt, an international company, had prepared a feasibility report about the project in 2014 and it had given details of the two almost insurmountable challenges, due to financial constraints, to the project — sustaining water in the river and treating the wastewater of the current city of Lahore that falls into the Ravi.
The first problem of having water in the river is almost impossible to resolve because the water of the Ravi has been given to India, according to the Indus Water Treaty, and installing filtration plants on 13 drains gets too expensive.
Incurring expenses on the wastewater treatment plants is not less than a surprise because the PTI has been trumpeting the slogan of austerity since it came to power in the federal and provincial governments. The government has been accused of unfair play in execution of the project, including hiding facts about land acquisition and deceiving the public as well as farmers.
Warraich, who has also led protests against land acquisition for the riverfront scheme, says the farmers are ready to go to any length to save their land and property when the government officials set foot on it.
“Now it’s a do-or-die situation for us,” he warns.
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2021