LAHORE: The high court on Friday stopped the handover of 45,267 acres of land on a lease to the Pakistan Army for the purposes of corporate farming.

The Punjab caretaker government recently agreed to hand over the land in question to the army in three districts — Bhakkar, Khushab and Sahiwal — on a 20-year lease (with the possibility to extend it for another 10 years).

The Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan (Pilap), a not-for-profit legal organisation, moved the LHC against the agreement and the subsequent notification issued by the caretaker government.

They argued that the notification was illegal as the caretaker government of a province had no power under the Constitution to take such a decision.

Giving away state land an ‘impermissible’ act under election law, argues lawyer

On Friday, Justice Abid Hussain Chattha took up Pilap’s petition, filed through advocates Ahmad Rafay Alam and Fahad Malik.

The counsel contended that the Punjab Colonies Department issued a notification on Feb 20 for handing over the land under Section 10 of the Colonisation of Government Lands (Punjab), Act 1912.

The scope of the caretaker government, they said, was limited to performing day-to-day functions and it had no power to make policy decisions of permanent nature.

Advocate Malik pointed out that giving state land for 30 years was a decision of a permanent nature, which could not have been taken by the caretaker government.

He said the exercise of powers under Section 10 of the Colonisation Act did not fall under the category of permissible actions by a caretaker government under the Elections Act, 2017. In fact, it directly fell under the category of impermissible activities under Section 230 of the Act.

He said the purported handing over of the land was also in violation of the Doctrine of Public Trust, which stated the government was responsible for protecting certain natural resources and cannot give them away to private citizens arbitrarily.

The counsel said the superior courts have recognised the state’s obligation to act as trustees over these natural resources under the doctrine. It binds the government to protect natural resources and consume them in a manner beneficial to all citizens and not just corporate or commercial interests.

The counsel argued there was no provision in the Pakistan Army Act, 1952 empowering the entity to undertake any activity beyond its scope for welfare unless the federal government expressly granted permission to do so.

The army neither has the jurisdiction to directly or indirectly engage in business ventures outside its scope nor can it claim any state land for corporate agriculture farming. After hearing the arguments, Justice Chattha passed an order to not hand over the land for corporate farming and issued notices to the respondents for submission of reports by May 9.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2023

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