The Lahore High Court (LHC) has stopped the caretaker government of Punjab from handing over at least 45,267 acres of land in three districts — Bhakkar, Khushab, and Sahiwal — of the province to the Pakistan Army for “Corporate Agriculture Farming”, it emerged on Friday.

On Thursday, a two-page verdict — a copy of which is available with Dawn.com — was issued by Judge Abid Hussain Chattha over a petition filed by Ahmad Rafay Alam on March 28 on behalf of Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan.

About two weeks ago, the Punjab government had signed an agreement to hand over the land to the army, referring to a notification dated Feb 20, 2023 and a joint venture agreement of March 8.

According to the verdict, the LHC has barred the Punjab caretaker government from extending any “lease of state land” for the above-mentioned purpose as per the government’s notification.

Noting that the points raised by the petitioner “need consideration”, the LHC issued notices to the respondents for May 9 and asked them to submit a response by then.

It also sent notices to the Attorney-General for Pakistan and Punjab Advocate General Shan Gul.

The petition

The petition filed by Alam had named Punjab Governor Muhammad Balighur Rehman, the Punjab Board of Revenue, the Punjab agriculture secretary, the Punjab forest, wildlife and fisheries secretary, the Punjab irrigation secretary and the Punjab livestock & dairy development secretary among the respondents.

It had asked that the LHC declare the caretaker government “cannot take major policy decisions” and also declare the Feb 20 notification as “illegal, null and void”.

Citing a letter dated March 10 that was issued to the Punjab Board of Revenue, it had further asked that the “handing over of any and all properties/land by and between the respondents” be declared “illegal, null and void” as well.

It had argued that the transfer of land was unlawful because Punjab Governor Muhammad Balighur Rehman “is not vested with any power to sanction the said notification”, the LHC verdict recalled.

The verdict stated the petitioner — citing Section 230 (functions of caretaker government) of the Election Act 2017 — had said the “mandate and scope of the caretaker government is limited to perform day-to-day functions of the government and is specifically barred to take policy decisions of permanent nature”.

The petition had also contended that the constitutional mandate restricts Army to perform functions of external and internal security and does not extend to “Corporate Agriculture Farming” — the intended purpose as per the government’s notification.

The agreement

According to informed sources, the agreement had been signed between the military, the Punjab government, and private firms dealing with corporate farming.

According to the document, the military’s land directorate wrote to the Punjab chief secretary, Board of Revenue and secretaries of the agriculture, forest, livestock and irrigation departments for handing over of 42,724-acre land in tehsils Kaloor Kot and Mankera in Bhakkar, 1,818 acres in tehsils Quaidabad and Khushab in Khushab, and 725 acres in tehsil Chichawatni of Sahiwal.

Speaking about the salient features of the proposed project, informed sources had said that the Punjab government will provide the land while the army will utilise its resources and retain the management of the project.

The private sector, on the other hand, is to invest and provide auxiliary support, including the supply of fertilisers.

Military sources had confirmed this development and said that the army was “not taking over the ownership of the land as it will remain the property” of the Punjab government.

They had further said that the army would convert the mostly barren, uncultivated, and under-cultivated land into fertile land.

At least 40 per cent of the revenue generated from the cultivation was to go to the Punjab government, 20pc to be spent on modern research and development in the agriculture sector, while the remaining was to be used for the succeeding crops and expansion of the project.

According to the sources, in the first phase of the project, different varieties of pulses, millets and rice were to be cultivated. This would be followed by large-scale cultivation of canola and wheat.

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