• Rejects report furnished by defence secretary
• Says land acquired for strategic purposes must be surrendered to state in case of commercial use
• Joint committee of three services set up to identify violations in order to submit a fresh report, court told

ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Tuesday regretted that commercial use of cantonment lands was a matter of ‘embarrassment’ for both the judiciary and the military establishment.

Headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed, a three-judge Supreme Court bench that had taken up a case relating to the illegal use of cantonment board lands in Karachi observed that the lands acquired for strategic purposes had to be surrendered back to the state the moment the lands were used for commercial gains other than the defence purposes.

“I wonder why the army has to venture into these projects,” observed Justice Qazi Mohammad Amin Ahmed, also a member of the SC bench.

Managing cinema halls, wedding halls or huge shopping malls, petrol pumps or housing societies on military lands was not legally sustainable as those lands were not meant for commercial activities, the court noted.

This state of affairs was happening across the country on all the cantonment lands, the chief justice regretted, also highlighting that three bases meant for the air force in Karachi were being used for commercial activities besides wedding halls and hotels had been developed at the naval base on Sharea Faisal, Karachi. Even the Canteen Stores Department (CSD) – a subsidiary of the defence forces – were turned into open commercial department stores while a huge building was constructed on Gizri Road Karachi within the span of a few days, the court regretted.

While pointing towards Defence Secretary Lt Gen (retd) Mian Mohammad Hilal Hussain, the chief justice observed that having served in the army on a senior position, the secretary must know that commercial use of the cantonment lands was not the intent of the relevant laws.

The secretary, however, withdrew a report furnished before the court when the bench rejected it with the remarks that the report seemed to be incorrect as the buildings mentioned to have been razed were still standing there.

While pointing towards Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan, the court wondered how the defence ministry could justify its use for the strategic purposes and asked the government to provide a comprehensive report highlighting which land of the cantonments was used for commercial purposes.

The AG, however, stated a joint committee of the three services had been set up to identify such violations, also assuring the court that a fresh report would soon be furnished before the court. The defence secretary also volunteered to personally visit the sites to file the fresh report along with pictures within four weeks.

What action the court would take against other violations if such a state of affairs in the military lands was allowed to continue, the Supreme Court observed, regretting that the army officials purchased such lands and then sold it to others. Later, the same plot was purchased by a number of individuals to build houses worth several millions.

One would find palatial buildings and huge marriage halls on the military lands even in Lahore, the chief justice observed, questioning again how wedding halls could be built on such lands.

The defence secretary, however, tried to explain that the definition of the strategic use for defence purposes had a wide connotation that also included commercial purposes, arguing that it was essential to keep the morale of the defence forces high during peace time.

“But where the garrison is located on such lands,” wondered the chief justice, adding that one would find only houses on such lands.

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2021

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