LAHORE: The caretaker Punjab government has filed an appeal in the Lahore High Court challenging its stay order against handing over of 45,267 acres of land on a lease to the Pakistan Army for corporate farming.

Assistant Advocate General Mohammad Usman Khan filed the appeal on behalf of the provincial caretaker setup pleading that a single bench passed the stay order without hearing government’s point of view. The appeal contends that the land lease was duly approved by the cabinet, with the objective to protect food and environment.

The LHC on March 31 stopped the handover of 45,267 acres of land on a lease to the Pakistan Army for the purposes of corporate farming. Justice Abid Hussain Chattha at the initial hearing of the petition of the Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan (Pilap) — a not-for-profit legal organisation — noted that the army neither had the jurisdiction to directly or indirectly engage in business ventures outside its scope nor could it claim any state land for corporate agriculture farming. The single bench while passing the order to not hand over the land for corporate farming also had issued notices to the respondents for submission of reports by May 9.

The petition questioned the power of the caretaker government to take the decision of handing over the land. It 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 petitioner also argued that there is 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.

Appeal claims govt not heard on the matter; cabinet’s decision for corporate farming ‘aimed at protecting food, environment’

The caretaker government of Punjab signed an agreement to hand 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’.

According to a 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 Kaloor Kot and Mankera tehsils of Bhakkar, 1,818 acres in Quaidabad and Khushab tehsils of Khushab district, and 725 acres in Chichawatni tehsil of Sahiwal.

The letter referred to a notification of the Punjab government dated Feb 20, 2023, and a joint venture (JV) agreement of March 8. It reminded that “while signing the JV management agreement on March 8, it was decided that state lands immediately required for the project be handed over to Pakistan Army.”

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

About the salient features of the proposed project, sources said that the Punjab government would provide the land while the army would utilise its resources and retain the management of the project. The private sector, on the other hand, would invest and provide auxiliary support, including the supply of fertilisers.

Military sources had confirmed this development, stating that the army was “not taking over the ownership of the land as it will remain the property” of the Punjab government. “The intervention of the army will provide a coherent administrative structure,” the sources added.

They said that the land in question was mostly barren, uncultivated, and under-cultivated and added that the army with the assistance of the relevant stakeholders, including its JV partners and locals, would turn this into fertile land.

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

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2023

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