LAHORE: A report rele­a­sed by Human Rights Watch has urged parliament to reform the colonial-era Land Acquisition Act in line with international obligations, as the law, frequently used to forcibly evict low-income gro­ups to enable development, exacerbates economic and social inequalities.

The 48-page report, I Escaped with Only My Life: Abusive Forced Evictions in Pakistan, released on Tues­day documents widespread and abusive forced evictions that disproportionately affect the most economically and socially marginalised communities in Pakistan.

The land acquisition law of 1894 provides the template for public land acquisition, allowing the Pakis­tani authorities to acquire land for vaguely defined “public purposes” which may include use by public-private partnerships and even private, for-profit companies, the report said.

The evictions violate a range of human rights, including the rights to adequate housing, the highest attainable standard of health, education, social security, security of person, and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degr­ading treatment, according to the report, which blames “antiquated legal code” for this practice.

Human Rights Watch says forced evictions violate basic rights, disproportionately impact low-income groups

“The government urge­ntly needs to reform its colonial-era land laws so that they are equitable, tran­s­parent, and in line with Pakistan’s internatio­nal obligations,” said Sar­oop Ijaz, senior Asia counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should ensure that no one is made homeless due to eviction, compensate the loss of land, and provide for the resettlement of those displaced.”

Similarly, the authorities have evicted thousands of people without adequate consultation, compensation, notices, resettlement assistance, or means of redress in violation of their basic rights, said the report.

According to a Karachi-based organisation working on forced evictions and land rights, the anti-encroachment campaign that followed heavy monsoon rains in 2020 ultimately disrupted the schooling of over 30,000 students.

For instance, Muhammad Ansar was in grade 9 when his house was demolished in Lahore in 2016 and eventually his education chapter came to an end following the loss of livelihood of his father.

“I was a regular student enrolled in the local government school. Once we were told to move during the construction of the train, we had no resources to stay in Lahore and moved to Sheikhupura district [an adjoining district]. For the next several months, we had no source of income…and I wasn’t enrolled in any school. Then, I got a job in a factory and the education chapter of my life was closed…” he said.

“Forced evictions are driven by a number of factors, including urbanisation and development projects where the government and private developers acquire land for infrastructure projects, sometimes displacing poor communities without due process and human rights protection,” the HRW said, adding that “anti-encroachment” drives are another justification used for eviction operations.

The findings of the report claimed that in most cases of forced evictions, the authorities did not provide “adequate consultation, notice, and a means of redress” and used excessive force, arrests, as well as coercive tactics to get possession of land.

“In some cases, the police arrest and prosecute those who resist without a lawful basis. Other contributing factors that facilitate abuse include corruption in land acquisition; impunity for police who carry out abusive evictions; and poor land registration mechanisms that make it difficult for victims of forced evictions to prove ownership,” the report added.

In order to put an end to this discriminatory practice, the rights watchdog urged parliament to repeal the Land Acquisition Act and enact legislation to “uphold the right to resettlement”.

“The legal framework should ensure that where land acquisition is absolutely necessary, people should be resettled close to their homes prior to demolitions, compensated for their losses, and offered rehabilitation assistance for any loss in assets and livelihood,” it said, calling upon the government to make the process for land acquisition for public purposes more transparent and participatory.

“Legislation should provide for the right to appeal to an independent body to adjudicate disputes over land rights and levels of compensation,” it added.

Zaki Abbas in Islamabad also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2024

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