Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The Lahore Development Authority (LDA) recently invited international firms to submit expressions of interest (EOIs) to update the River Riverfront Urban Development Project (RRUDP). According to the EOI, the “Government of Punjab has planned to develop the RRUDP on both sides of the River Ravi along the Lahore city, Pakistan. The project area engulfs 102,000 acres of land and stretches over 46 kilometres. The proposed project entails high quality residential, institutional, commercial and recreation zones.”
At the same time, the Government of Punjab announced it would move to promulgate an Ordinance establishing a River Ravi Front Development Authority (RRFDA). Details of the RRFDA, its powers and functions, have not been forthcoming, and so far no draft of a proposed Ordinance has been shared publicly. From newspaper reports, however, “The authority will work for developing a new city over an area more than 100,000 acres. It is expected that some Rs five trillion investment will be made by the private sector.”
Both the EOI and proposed RRFDA raise serious questions from an urban planning, environmental regulation and governance point of view. If not answered, the fate of the RRUDP and all involved with it will be marked by folly.
First, consider the urban planning dimension. In 2012, an amendment in the LDA Act gave the Authority control over the entire Lahore Division. Previously, the LDA operated in its “controlled areas” – i.e. wherever it operated a scheme or exercised land use control within the larger Lahore Metropolitan Area (LMA). Now overseeing five Districts, the LDA became Pakistan’s first regional planning authority. One would have thought that the LDA, given its new and expanded role, would move towards a regional master plan.
Given its new and expanded regulatory role, the LDA, instead of conducting a regional master planning exercise that could serve its understanding, in 2014 adopted the Integrated Master Plan for Lahore prepared by NESPAK for the LDA and approved by the Lahore District Council in 2004 as Master Plan 2021 “till the preparation of new master plan by the Authority or any Amendment by the Authority.”
One may not like the Master Plan 2021 prepared by NESPAK. It may be outdated. It may not be thorough enough. It may only provide for the Lahore Metropolitan Area and not the whole of the Lahore Division. But, whatever its faults, it is the Master Plan of Lahore.
Lahore Metropolitan Area (2004) as per Master Plan 2021
Volume II of Master Plan 2021 “discusses key issues that are to be addressed, the growth components, potentials and constraints of Lahore Metropolitan Area” and presents recommendations in all sectors of urban development, i.e. land use, land development, housing, transportation, community facilities, public utilities, infrastructure, the environment, and institutional framework. Chapter 16.2 of Volume II notes of then existing urban growth that the “lack of land management has also resulted in leap-frog or piecemeal development and undesirably low densities at the cost of prime agricultural land”. Chapter 18.2.5 underlines the “need to ensure compact and consolidated form of urban expansion instead of piecemeal development which rapidly consumes rich agricultural land”. Volume II also notes that due to “physical constraints” such as the Ravi in the north and border in the east, “growth strategies for Lahore will also be constrained by these physical barriers in the east and the existing growth trend towards the south has to be accepted until a positive change in relationship with the neighbouring India becomes a political reality to justify expansion to the east.”
Given the explosive urban growth in Punjab in the last two decades, one would imagine the LDA, now a regional planning authority with an outdated Master Plan 2021, would set about attempting to survey its new expanded jurisdiction and prepare a new plan for the Lahore Division. This has happened, but in a rather long, convoluted and problematic way.
Instead of carrying out studies or surveys, without any goals or strategies for urban growth, LDA passed amendments in the Master Plan 2021 in 2013, 2015 and 2016. The 2013 amendment classified certain areas in the LMA as agricultural, residential and institutional/educational while following the southwest growth corridor for the city identified by Master Plan 2021. The 2015 amendment, however, reclassified some 17,000 acres of peri-urban agricultural land in eastern Lahore for residential purposes. Without any background survey or study of the new area of control, the LDA reclassified an enormous tract of “prime agricultural land” expressly against the goals and objectives of Master Plan 2021.
2013 Amendment in Master Plan 2021
2015 Amendment in Master Plan 2021
In 2016, the LDA made sweeping land-use changes throughout the Lahore Division in exercise of its new powers as regional planning authority and provided for an Amended Master Plan for Lahore Division 2021. The 2016 amendment prescribes different land uses for Lahore as well as the secondary cities and areas in Lahore Division. It also has provision for the RRUDP, but again all done without any study or survey of the population dynamics or urban growth characteristics of the region. One could argue this Master Plan for Lahore Division sets the ground for the LDA to move up the ladder from granting commercialisation NOCs for individual plots to regularising whole housing schemes. On the other hand, it at least provides a framework for interim regulation while the LDA goes about what it should be doing –conducting a proper master plan study for Lahore Division.
2016 Amended Master Plan of Lahore Division
Finally, in June 2020, the LDA published a notice inviting requests for EOIs for a study for a Master Plan of Lahore Division 2050 with scope of work including a profile of the Lahore region and the formulation of a Strategic Development Plan for urban settlements. This EOI represents a chance for the LDA to finally properly survey the areas falling under its expanded regulatory control for the first time. Indeed, it is heartening to note the EOI has the lofty goal of the “conservation of our humanity and environment and the realisation of our highest human potential.” However, nowhere in the EOI is there any mention of the RRUDP.
Bids submitted in response to the EOI of the Master Plan for Lahore Division 2050 were to be opened on August 4, 2020. Only when they are evaluated and a consultant finalised and contracts signed will work on the study actually begin. It will take some years before the study can be concluded and term regional master determined. Seen in this light, the decision of the LDA to request EOIs for updating the RRUDP at this point in time seems arbitrary in the extreme. The LDA to date has no proper study of the growth and requirements of Lahore, the Master Plan of Lahore Division won’t be ready for some time, and it doesn’t even mention the RRUDP. Why is the RRUDP being treated like a foregone conclusion?
It is pertinent to note the RRUDP isn’t a new idea. It is the third iteration of a pipedream first conjured up by the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid government in Punjab trying to capitalise on the property boom of the early 2000s and later modified and somewhat pursued during the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government of 2013-2018.
I was first acquainted with the RRUDP in my role as Secretary of the River Ravi Commission (RRC) constituted by the Lahore High Court (LHC) in 2013 with the objective to “restore the natural ecology of the River Ravi”. In 2014, after the recommendations of the RRC to pilot a bioremediation site along the Ravi to treat wastewater had been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Punjab, and received the blessings of the LHC – the government announced it was pursuing the RRUDP.
The Ravi is the smallest and most polluted of the Indus tributaries. Part of the untreated effluent from Sialkot and Faisalabad and all of the untreated effluent of Lahore and Gujranwala drain into it. And since the waters of the Ravi were allocated to India by the Indus Waters Treaty, there is hardly any flow, except in the monsoon, that can be used to dilute the pollutants. The liquid poison injected into the river has devastated its ecosystem. E-coli and arsenic find their way into the downstream canal irrigation system and heavy metals leech into the aquifer. RRUDP documents filed by the LDA during proceedings of the RRC case observed: “Attaining environmental sustainability of the Ravi as a major feature in Lahore’s landscape is a key challenge to the project” and that the “LDA is not financially in a position to launch such a huge project at its own and [that is why it was] essential to have a bankable feasibility study by reputable international/local firms so that international/local funding can be attracted to meet the expenses of the mega project.” The Planning and Development department approved Rs 490.548 million for the PC-II of the RRUDP (for conducting pre-feasibility, feasibilities and surveys).
The government of Punjab engaged the international consulting firm Meinhardt to undertake the feasibility for the RRUDP. Because the RRUDP required land near Babu Sabu that the RRC and WASA, Lahore had indicated was available for the pilot bioremediation plant, the Government of Punjab asked to halt the work of the RRC. In the several subsequent interactions between the RRC, the LDA’s Special Project Unit and Meinhardt consultants, the RRC learnt:
Between 2014 and now no private investment, PPP-mode or otherwise, has shown interest in RRUDP.
What’s changed between 2014 and now that the LDA would reconsider the RRUDP and seek international consultants to “update” the feasibility Meinhardt has already been paid handsomely for? And how does the LDA propose to raise the Rs five trillion from the private sector when there isn’t that much clean money lying about in today’s Covid-19 economy?
From an environmental point of view, RRUDP, updated or otherwise, doesn’t make any sense either. Even if the LDA could raise the billions of dollars necessary to undertake the project, the entire effort goes literally to waste when one considers the Ravi still receives half or all the liquid effluent of Sialkot, Gujranwala and Faisalabad. The trillions spent cleaning the Ravi benefit only those who live along its banks. Unless the River Ravi Basin is understood holistically, the RRUDP investment efforts will still result in a polluted ecosystem downstream Lahore.
Indicative BOD (mg/L) Load Map for Ravi Basin and Trend along River Ravi (ADB 2020)
Investment in the end-of-pipe water treatment envisaged by the RRUDP may improve the quality of effluent discharged into the Ravi at Lahore, but it won’t do anything about the effluent carried in the nullahs and storm water drains that snake through the city. In fact, investment in these sorts of combined effluent treatment plants is like subsidising the polluting industries along these nullahs and drains: the discharge is treated at State expense and the polluter does not pay.
I have been the legal advisor to a team of Asian Development Bank (ADB) funded consultants in a recently concluded three-year study of Revitalising the Ecosystem of the River Ravi Basin prepared and submitted to the Government of Punjab in June 2020. The local and international experts who worked on this study proposed an understanding of the Ravi Basin by dividing and visioning it in three categories: upstream Lahore, where a vibrant river ecosystem still thrives and should be protected; downstream Lahore where the river, contaminated by e-coli, arsenic and cadmium and the riverbed, brutally mined for sand by the construction industry, is still within the realm of protection and revitalisation; and urban drains and nullahs that can be the basis of relatively inexpensive urban regeneration through a mix of innovative bioremediation techniques and improved enforcement by the EPA, Punjab, of environmental quality standards.
River restorations take time. More time than our political cycle. So the team proposed the notification of a 20,000-acre River Ravi National Park between the Ravi Siphon and its confluence with the Hudiara Drain to provide for long-term ecological management of the Ravi Basin (as compared to the 100,000 acres sought to be acquired for the RRUDP.) Yes, combined effluent treatment would still be required at some points, just on account of the sheer volumes and composition of waste water discharged, especially by Lahore and Faisalabad. But this approach definitely looks at the problem of waste water pollution in the Basin holistically and with an element of accountability of polluters.
So why would the LDA, when the Government of Punjab was considering a holistic study of the revitalisation of the Ravi Basin, seek to go ahead with a costly update of an already costly feasibility of the RRUDP that does not effectively tackle waste water pollution in the Basin? It’s not as if the LDA and Government of Punjab are different entities: the Chairman of the LDA is the Chief Minister of Punjab.
From a governance point of view, what is the need to establish a Riverfront Authority (RA) and that too by Ordinance? The LDA already has responsibility for regional urban planning and has thankfully just initiated the process of Master Plan for Lahore Division 2050. If the Government of Punjab doesn’t think the LDA has the capacity to carry out the RRUDP, which superstars does it have in mind to man the RA?
The Constitution gives the Governor of a province power to promulgate an Ordinance if the provincial Assembly is not in session and “if satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary to take immediate action.” Provincial Ordinances lapse after a period of 90 days unless approved by the Assembly and can’t be repromulgated. What special circumstances exist to create the RA today that haven’t existed since its RRUDP feasibility was prepared by Meinhardt in 2014? Why the urgency to update the RRUDP after six years, and that too when the LDA has just started the process of Master Plan of Lahore Division 2021? Why not wait for the Punjab Assembly’s next session? Why send an Ordinance for the Governor to sign when the government has the numbers in the Punjab Assembly? Surely it’s wiser to have parliamentary discussion on such an important subject before casting it into law. Why promulgate an Ordinance now only to have it scrutinised by the Assembly if it is to last beyond 90 days? Or is an Ordinance a way of presenting an undemocratic fait accompli?
In a meeting I attended chaired by the Chairman Planning & Development Board Punjab on July 16, 2020, it was stated by the Director General LDA himself that the EOIs for updating the RRUDP had been opened by the LDA on July 14, 2020, and that the LDA would hand the procurement and its control over the RRUDP update over to the RA once it was established. Why not postpone the opening of the EOIs – or better yet why not cancel the EOI process and have the RA undertake it on its own? Why the hurry? What if the RA wishes for the scope of the update of the RRUDP to be changed? Why spend money on an international consultant now?
There are far too many questions the update of the RRUDP and establishment of a RA raise. The people of Lahore, who live to suffer the effects of the pollution like everyone else in the Ravi Basin, deserve to know. The right to a clean and healthy environment is a fundamental right of every citizen.
The writer is an environmental lawyer and Tweets @rafay_alam