The forced acquisition of land for an urban development project has spurred protests in the Punjab province of Pakistan. On September 21, farmers protested in Lahore against these attempts by the Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA). The farmers claim that the acquisition of their farmlands for the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project (RRUDP) is illegal and in violation of the order passed by the Supreme Court in January this year.
— Lok Sujag (@lok_sujag) September 24, 2022
The farmers at the protest, most of them big farmers and landowners, have criticized the local administration in Sheikhupura for aiding RUDA in its forced occupation of their land. The protesters warned the Punjab government of a “severe reaction” if they are evicted from land on which they have lived for several generations.
Peoples Dispatch spoke to Ahmad Rafay Alam, one of the lawyers who represented affected landowners in their petition challenging the RRUDP’s land acquisition in the Lahore High Court (LHC), for a response to RUDA’s latest actions. He said: “It seems that RUDA has acquired land apparently in violation of a SC Order. In December last year (ed: this verdict was announced in January 2022), the Lahore High Court declared RUDA illegal. However in January of this year, the government of Punjab filed an appeal before the Supreme Court. The Court suspended the decision of the LHC but allowed RUDA to proceed only on those lands that it had by that time paid for and taken possession of. No more. The recent acquisitions are for additional land. Contempt proceedings will be filed in the SC in the next week.”
In January 2022, the Lahore High Court had stalled the project, calling it “unconstitutional.” However, seven days later, this decision was overturned by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. The apex court, however, directed RUDA to stop the acquisition of any more land and construct only on land that had been already acquired and paid for before January 2020. According to a spokesperson for the project RUDA had been awarded 15,000-16,000 acres by the government and had acquired another 5,000 acres of land in exchange for cash payments, although this has been disputed by lawyers representing farmers and others affected.
Forced dispossession of farmer’s lands
Tuesday’s protests by landowners and farmers have highlighted that RUDA has continued to acquire new land in violation of SC orders near Ferozewala city in Punjab. According to Dawn, protests began after several social media users shared videos of private contractors “destroying crops” using “heavy machinery, [and] protected by private guards” in order to effect the seizure of land by force.
More destruction of crop to make way for RUDA, a housing scheme for the elite whose patron is Imran Khan himself. pic.twitter.com/zK4qLP4EMq
— Aima Khosa (@aimaMK) September 22, 2022
Similar protests have been held against the Ravi Riverfront project by landowners, farmers, and others affected since early 2021. It is to be noted, however, that not all farmers have necessarily rejected this project; many are protesting that the meager compensation they will receive is far below the market rate for their land. Of the PKR one trillion estimated as the cost of the initial phase of the plan, only PKR 200 million has been allocated for land acquisition. Farmers and activists alike have criticized the former Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, and particularly former Prime Minister Imran Khan, for empowering RUDA’s “land mafias” to grab agricultural land at throwaway prices. They have also criticized the support that RUDA has received from the provincial government in Punjab headed by Pervez Elahi, a PTI candidate who took oath as chief minister in July 2022.
Imran Khan thinks the Ravi Urban Development project is going well. Meanwhile, farmers preparing a large protest against evictions in front of RUDA office today. pic.twitter.com/pFnKocZdKk
— Aima Khosa (@aimaMK) September 20, 2022
LHC order on Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project states that the environmental impact assessment prepared by RUDA does not conform with Punjab's environmental protection regulations. pic.twitter.com/zXPaTtabks
— Benazir Shah (@Benazir_Shah) January 26, 2022
The Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project
The riverfront development on the Ravi river is a real estate project that ostensibly intends to build a ‘smart green city’ on the agricultural lands along the river. This will be only the second-largest planned city in Pakistan, after Islamabad, and is slated to be completed over a period of 30 years. While such plans had initially been mooted by the Pervez Musharraf government as long ago as 2013, the multi-billion dollar project was officially launched by the Imran Khan government in August 2020 when it passed a special legislation that established the RUDA. The RUDA was to be the nodal agency responsible for the implementation of the massive public-private project. Its main stated aim has been to establish a megacity along the lines of Dubai, Shanghai, or Singapore on both banks of the Ravi to relieve the population pressure on Lahore by promoting vertical riverfront development.
The other touted goals of this PKR five trillion project are as follows: reviving the drying Ravi river, solving Lahore’s pollution problems, and generating USD 40 billion in revenue upon completion.
The RRUDP has been mired in controversy ever since its establishment nearly two years ago. Lawyers and activists such as Rafay Alam, Ammar Ali Jan, and Umair Javed, among others, have persistently raised concerns about the impact a project of this scale will have on the Ravi’s fragile ecosystem. They wrote last year in Dawn that it was “hard to imagine how paving over nearly 80,000 acres of rich farmland [could] be conceived of as ecologically sustainable or socially responsible,” noting that the project will only have an adverse environmental impact on the region. They also draw comparisons to settler-colonialism’s use of eminent domain to seize land, pointing out that the “conceptualisation and fast-tracked implementation [of the project] also reveal the institutional and structural position of real estate development in the country, and how deeply it remains tied to broader political-economy considerations;” namely, benefiting the already wealthy and powerful at the cost of the poor and marginalized.
No end to farmers’ woes in the flood-hit economy
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) released a report on the RRUDP in 2020 (linked here), highlighting the ecological and financial danger the project poses to the province of Punjab, since it targets a major agricultural belt on which the food supply of much Lahore depends. The HRCP highlighted the findings of its study on Twitter, saying: “The Ravi Urban Development Authority has failed to present any sustainable alternative to the local farmers’ relocation and livelihood loss. Adequate compensation measures for farmer support must be ensured, including alternative income support.”
Landless farm laborers stand to lose the most from this government-capitalist nexus, as they are unlikely to receive any compensation for the loss of livelihood they will face. It is important to note, also, that around 40% of the labor force in Pakistan relies on agriculture, which has been severely impacted by the floods that have taken place over the last three months. Farmers have lost crops, livestock, and even families. More than 50% of Pakistan’s major crops, including rice and cotton, have been destroyed by the flash floods. Seizing more land from farmers at this time is likely to only worsen the devastation caused by the flooding.