LAHORE - The Punjab government is to move ahead with the controversial Canal Road expansion project after Pakistan’s Supreme Court rejected objections by environmental campaigners on Wednesday.

The apex court has allowed widening of Canal Road in two sectors - from Dharampura to Harbanspura and from Doctor’s Hospital to Thokar Niaz Beg - while hearing a contempt petition filed by Lahore Bachao Tehreek here at SC Lahore registry.

Work on the project was halted in 2007 after green activists claimed hundreds of mature trees would be destroyed to make way for the road.

Petitioner Lahore Bachao Tehreek had argued the canal area had been declared as “Heritage Park” pursuant to “The Lahore Canal Heritage Park Act, 2013”.

As the hearing commenced, Advocate Khwaja Haris appeared before the bench on behalf of the Punjab government and said the traffic had become a big issue after a rapid increase in urban population.

The government stated it was the very reason behind the expansion project which is in the interest of the public. However, the petitioner’s counsel contended the extension/widening of the road was no solution of the traffic problem rather the government should come up with alternate means to overcome the congestion in the area. There was no justification for widening of the road, he argued.

The petitioner further submitted the Canal Park was a public trust and could not be encroached upon only for the benefit of eight percent of Lahore population having vehicle ownership. “The fundamental right to life of the public at large cannot be compromised by cutting age old trees. This will have serious ecological impact,” he added.

He further said the apex court had already ordered the Punjab government not to cut trees in 2011 but the orders were not followed, and the project was started. “The government has committed contempt of court,” he stated.

The petitioner pleaded the court to initiate contempt proceedings against the government authorities.

The government’s counsel told the court the project included construction of a 1.3 km long underpass at Chaubucha Interchange in the sector falling between Dharampura and Harbanspura to bring it in alignment with the rest of the Canal Road and for easy merger of traffic coming out from the underpass.

He further stated the proposed project was neither violative of the provisions of the Lahore Canal Heritage Park Act, 2013 (Act) nor the Doctrine of Public Trust.

After hearing both sides, the bench observed: “We are of the view that provided there is minimum environmental intrusion and the Heritage Park is duly protected, addition of a third lane will significantly benefit the people of Lahore by enabling smooth flow of traffic in this stretch which is the purport of the Recommendations of the Mediation Committee and the Judgment of this Court.”

It said the court found no merit in the proposition that the project infringed upon the protections accorded to the Heritage Park vide the Act and found that the applicant was fully compliant with the mandate of the Act.

The bench further observed: “We have been apprised that for each tree cut, the government is going to plant ten trees.” The bench also observed that there is no reason to stop the applicant (the government) from executing the project if there were hazard to the environment.