LAHORE: Despite tall claims of the government to protect green areas, grave concerns expressed by the civil society over consumption of the agriculture land for commercial purposes and court orders against it, hundreds of illegal housing schemes/projects already developed or being established currently on green areas, including about 230 such schemes in Lahore and its adjoining districts, are likely to be legalised/approved under a recent ordinance promulgated in the province.
The move, it is alleged, is set to benefit the powerful land mafia, which succeeded in purchasing huge chunks of land in the green areas around Lahore and other divisions. The land mafia has developed or is in the process of developing housing schemes in violation of the land use rules and the cities’ master plans. After the promulgation of the ordinance, titled “The Punjab Commission for Regularization of Irregular Housing Schemes Ordinance-2021” on April 9, another related to squeezing the LDA’s jurisdiction to the Lahore city district alone from the entire division consisting four districts.
Lahore High Court Chief Justice Muhammad Qasim Khan on January 19 this year had directed the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) to stop all kinds of construction work in illegal housing schemes established on the agriculture land and suspend the amnesty being given to them.
“Not a single wall or window should be constructed in a society developed on the agricultural land,” the CJ had warned the legal adviser to the LDA.
“It seems to be a big game allegedly on the part of the government as first an ordinance to form a commission to regularise irregular housing schemes, including all those falling in green areas, was promulgated and then another came, clipping building control of the LDA and limiting it to the Lahore city alone,” said a private developer/builder.
“Everything is being done very quickly. It seems some very powerful people want illegal housing schemes—especially on the green areas, which cannot be legalised under the existing LDA and environmental laws, land use rules/regulations and the fundamental rights narrated in the constitution of Pakistan. Where is the PM who used to speak from time to time on protecting green areas of the country,” deplored the developer who requested not to be named.
“It is very strange that if you have money equaling 2pc of the residential land value, you can legalise the scheme falling in green areas,” he said.
The Lahore High Court chief justice in recent hearings on various cases had also expressed grave concerns over the illegal housing schemes, especially those developed on green areas. The CJ had also reprimanded the LDA and other civic agencies, including the defunct town municipal administrations (TMAs), for not taking action against those involved in developing illegal schemes. At present, there are as many as 2,000 illegal housing schemes (developed or under-developing phase) in Punjab and most of them exist in major cities, including Lahore and its surroundings.
The Lahore division alone has over 600 illegal housing schemes and the number was 576 in January, this year. The 600 schemes include 230 developed or being established on green areas of Lahore, Kasur, Nankana Sahib and Sheikhupura districts in violation of the master plan, laws, rules and regulations.
According to the April 9 ordinance, the commission, headed by a retired judge of the high or supreme court shall have the power to hear the cases related to illegal schemes and regularise any non-conforming land use on which the irregular schemes exist.
Similarly, another ordinance was promulgated on April 12 to amend the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) Act, 1975 under which Sheikhupura, Kasur and Nankana Sahib are no longer part of the authority.
It was reportedly done on demand of provincial ministers, assembly members and the public who wanted limiting the powers of the LDA to Lahore only.
Talking to Dawn, LDA Vice Chairman S.M. Imran said most of the illegal housing schemes fell in the green areas where development of such projects was not allowed under the master plans and the housing schemes regulations, environment and other rules concerned.
“This matter came under discussion several times in courts since the LDA had no powers to approve or legalise them,” he explained.
He said the situation demanded finding a way out to at least look into the affairs of all illegal schemes and form a commission under the court directions.
“And finally, in line with the instructions, an ordinance was promulgated to form a commission to look into the affairs of such schemes, including the green area ones,” he added.
According to the ordinance, the illegal schemes developed/being developed on the non-conforming land (including green areas) can be regularised on the payment of fine of two per cent of the residential value as per applicable valuation table, followed by the schemes missing parks or open spaces, graveyards on the payment of fine of the amount equaling to two times of the value of deficient land or provision of land (graveyard) as an alternate. Similarly, the penalty for regularising the illegal schemes lacking public buildings or access road width etc has also been fixed in the ordinance.
“I am really worried to see what is happening in our country. On one hand, the government, in collaboration with the citizens, is working for the last one year or so on preparation of a regional plan and city master plans, but on the other hand, it also continues introducing such ordinances to legalise illegal schemes, including the ones on the green areas. It is so strange and irritating really,” deplored Kamil Khan Mumtaz, an eminent urban expert and civil society activist.
He said the government should have taken such steps in line with the guidance of the regional/master plans once they were finalised and approved accordingly.
Mr Mumtaz said the main issue the country had been facing was the implementation and rule of law. “When the people violate laws and develop such schemes or do another unlawful act, the institutions remain silent. And when they take action, the public sentiments emerge surprisingly, forcing the government to legalise the illegal acts,” he added.
While master plans are under preparation, the government, in addition to legalising the illegal schemes, had launched the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project to facilitate the influential and rich people earn more on the pretext of ‘public interest’, he said. “The government has also changed land use rules and started promoting construction of high rises, housing schemes’ rules etc. Whatever is going on at present is really worrisome,” Mr Mumtaz bemoaned.
Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2021