Volume 3, No. 9, September 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Since its latest rebirth, this time emerging suddenly as the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf’s (PTI’s) star project, the Ravi River Development Scheme has been touted as a harbinger of a bright future for the country, especially for the city of Lahore. A new organisation, Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA), has been formed to handle the project, signifying a new beginning. It has been hailed as a new dawn by its sponsors, compared to a new and improved version of Dubai, and spoken of in the same breath as the developments on the River Thames in London. A heavyweight government spokesperson has likened the endeavour to creating an alternative to Dubai, Istanbul and London for the benefit of Pakistani tourists. A far cry from low-cost housing and welfare of the poor? Perhaps, but this time around we are told, a new approach will be taken to infuse this decades-old project with new life. The government will involve itself only with infrastructural development, while the private sector will drive this Rupees five trillion behemoth.
The latest developments in this scheme, however, are a source of serious concern not only for this project, but also for the perpetuation of values that developments like this have come to represent.
A notification under Section 4 of the Land Acquisition Act 1894 has been issued by the Government of Punjab on October 6, 2020, signalling its intention to forcibly acquire thousands of acres of private land for the project. This is apparently only the first phase and more land will be acquired in due course, various estimates putting this anywhere between 70,000 and 102,000 acres. The notification has been followed quickly by the setting up of District Price Assessment Committees (DPACs), and their announcement, practically overnight, of woefully low acquisition prices for these thousands of acres of land in Lahore, much of it being more than 10 kilometres away from the Ravi itself.
Why is the government acquiring this land in spite of repeated statements that it has no money and that the private sector will lead the way in the development of this scheme?
A clue is given in the Request for Proposal (RfP) issued by RUDA, the newly established authority for the project, for the guidance of potential investors in the project. The first point states: “Land acquisition payment to RUDA by the Developer/Investor at a minimum of two times the land acquisition cost.”
So, the land acquired by the government will be marked up 100 percent and then ‘sold’ to the developers who will then do whatever developers do. This ‘profit’ generated by RUDA will presumably be used for infrastructural development. Seems straightforward enough, right?
There is, however, one catch: the land will be forcibly acquired from the land owners at a fraction of its market value. The acquisition prices made public by the government show “assessed” prices at a fraction (often only a tenth) of actual market values. The hapless and helpless citizens owning this land (often many generations in their family, a source of livelihood and generally their only possession) will be deprived of their holdings for a mere pittance and left to fend for themselves. The developers/investors with ostensibly questionable sources of money will be encouraged and incentivised to whiten this ‘investment’ under the prevailing (and no doubt a future) amnesty scheme by being invited to ‘buy’ this land at a fraction of its true market value; a neat act of alchemy to transfer most of the landowners’ equity to the coffers of the developers/investors at a stroke. The latter would have made billions already without the first shovel hitting the ground. This is taking from thousands of the poor to give to a few of the rich, truly reversing the idea of helping the poor by taking from the rich!
Now it should become obvious why there is such a hurry to issue the Section 4 notification, followed by such alacrity in setting up the Price Committees and publishing the meagre, laughably low acquisition prices for dozens of villages. There is a tremendous hurry to enter the next phase and acquire the land as quickly as possible, with the first phase in the almost comical guise of a medical city, etc., to start immediately. Acquiring land far away from the project site that has nothing to do with the real scheme in the already densely populated developed areas would also be instantly much more profitable – low hanging fruit for selected commercial developers. The files seem to have the proverbial wheels propelling themselves forward, and the land owners to their doom.
In this whole process, however, there is an opportunity for the government to establish principles that many of its leaders proclaim loudly and which seem to have been overlooked.
The full details of the project, including its operational model, have to be submitted for public scrutiny. It has the potential to affect thousands of lives. A neutral body has to be set up to which comments and objections could be submitted. No compulsory acquisition of land should be carried out until a proper public purpose and a transparent operational model is established.
The government should provide infrastructural development and clear policy guidelines, e.g. on zoning. Commercial developers should be given incentives such as tax exemptions on profits, but not handed over poor citizens’ lands on a platter and for a pittance. This is probably illegal and unconstitutional anyway, although that is a weak argument in our context, admittedly. Any developer worth his salt should be able to acquire land on commercial terms and turn it into a profitable project. Isn’t this what competent business people should do? Any compulsory acquisition of land for clearly demonstrated infrastructural purposes should be done at true market values. The government should not be complicit in scamming its own citizens under the guise of DC rates, etc. A suitable premium for forcible displacement should be paid to the affectees.
The Ravi River project can be used to establish principles of human rights and their protection, rule of law, transparency and fair dealing. Why not inject a dose of realism into the rhetoric by making the project more ‘bite-sized’ and putting the horse before the cart for a change? I would urge the government not to fritter away these opportunities. Let the Ravi River Development set a shining example. You do not want the foundations of ‘Naya (New) Pakistan’ raised on the blood, sweat and tears of its citizens, who are deprived needlessly and cruelly of often their only possession and, indeed, their very identity. There should be no need for a modern pharaoh to crush thousands of minions under a pyramid in pursuit of glory. And not much else!