THE Lahore High Court decision scrapping the controversial multibillion-dollar Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project is a major victory for the environmentalists and farmers whose lands were being acquired forcibly and illegally by the government to build a new city for the rich and powerful on the banks of the river. But the fight for them is yet not over as the government is considering “all legal options following the court verdict” and plans to continue work on the project by “making the relevant [land acquisition] law in conformity with the LHC [orders]” to pull off the scheme. For now, several provisions of the act have been declared violative of the Constitution and the fundamental rights of citizens. Among other things, the act has also been found by the court to be offensive to the environment protection law since the environment impact assessment prepared by the Ravi Urban Development Authority doesn’t conform to Punjab environment protection regulations. The verdict supports what its critics have long emphasised: the project is not for public welfare and that the “government had been unable to justify the scheme keeping in view the public trust doctrine as Punjab would be bereft of its fertile plains”.
That the government brushed off criticism of the project ignoring its costs to the environment and thousands of farmers underscores the growing influence of wealthy real estate developers in the policymaking process and on the PTI leadership. The government is pitching the scheme as the country’s first eco-friendly, green initiative that would help Lahore tackle its problems like unsafe drinking water, inadequate drainage, degradation of the environment and shortage of housing, hospitals and schools for low-middle-income families. Few, other than the land developers lobbying for the project for around two decades now because of massive expected returns, believe that as they see its potential impact on the environment and livelihoods of cultivators. The project also runs counter to the PTI’s election promise to reshape the country’s development strategy by moving away from the large brick-and-mortar schemes to investing in people for inclusive growth. The construction of a new city outside Lahore is not the answer to the metropolis’s problems. At the moment we need to save our existing cities from collapse rather than serve the commercial interests of powerful lobbies. The Lahore High Court ruling has given the government an opportunity to reconsider the project and its implications for people, livelihoods and the ecology of the area.
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2022