Land grab or river revival? ‘RUDA aims to manage the area properly’

Lahore is the capital city of Punjab and the bedrock of business for the entire province. For years, migration from the outskirts of the province into Lahore has increased congestion, burdening the city’s infrastructure capabilities. Lahore’s pace of population growth vs infrastructure development is expected to have adverse consequences in the coming years. The only way forward is through a “planned city” to eradicate Lahore’s upcoming urban challenges.

The Ravi Urban Development Authority, which was established to manage the project, promotes it as a green effort that will bring in much-needed resources to clean up the river. “The goal is to appropriately manage the land,” says RUDA’s Chief Executive Officer Imran Amin in response to criticism that has been levelled at the project. 

Pakistan’s leaders have been trying to develop the banks of the Ravi for almost a decade and Prime Minister Imran Khan has made the task a priority.

The Ravi river was instrumental to Lahore’s development, but today large pockets sit stagnant while other sections have dried up completely. A water-sharing treaty with India has limited its flow, while Pakistan’s own mismanagement has exacerbated the problem. For decades, the river has collected untreated sewage from Lahore, as well as industrial and agricultural waste.

In recent years, Pakistan has developed legislation to regulate water use amid warnings that the country will face water scarcity by 2025. According to a government study last year, only 39 percent of water sources across 29 cities were safe for drinking. Cleaning up the Ravi could help Pakistan forestall an impending water crisis — its basin is home to some 50 million people and the river irrigates about 7 million acres of land.

RUDA plans to construct a man-made channel and a series of barrages along the Ravi’s path to assist conserve the river’s restricted flow and restore Lahore’s groundwater supply. Some opponents, however, are skeptical of such statements and what they see to be RUDA’s land grab. Last year, the Lahore High Court blocked the project, one decision in an ongoing legal fight for the future of the river that could reach Pakistan’s Supreme Court.

In order to preserve the water resources, RUDA as an Authority is creating strategic alliances to empower farmers with modern farming techniques i.e., Hydroponics, Aquaponics, Vertical farming, Greenhouses. These models have globally proven successful and require almost 70% water, land and resources that are currently being absorbed by traditional farming methods.

The projects are marked by common features including more efficient public transport, green spaces and wastewater treatment plants,” says Amin.

Pakistan has had some success with planned cities. Its capital, Islamabad, shares a larger metropolitan area with neighboring Rawalpindi — the way RUDA says it envisions its city relating to Lahore. 

But critics worry that the new city, which RUDA says will take 12 to 15 years to build, will replicate Lahore’s problems instead of fixing them — especially its inequality. They also say the government’s focus on building a new city could lead to further neglect in parts of Lahore. 

Additionally, these modern farming techniques have proven to eradicate wastage whereby increasing farm output significantly. In simple terms, modern farming can produce greater output faster with 20% of the resources consumed by traditional farming. RUDA will empower displaced farmers with these techniques to upscale them from their current lifestyle.

But last year Sajjad Warraich, a local farmer, was told that the government would be acquiring the land. He’d be compensated, and his farm turned into something other than agricultural land. That didn’t sit right with him, so he filed a petition opposing the acquisition.

“This is our property. We don’t want to sell it,” says Warraich. “They are acquiring our land for a new city” where local residents won’t be able to continue farming, he says. “I don’t understand this logic.”

To create the proposed city, RUDA would sell land to developers, who would build on it under the government’s supervision. 

“There won’t be any forced acquisition,” says Amin from RUDA. “Unless it’s important where it’s [a] wastewater treatment plant or something which is necessary to be placed there and we will try our best” to give current residents “a fair market price.”

Amin argues that housing developments are already being built in Lahore without environmental approval. If the area near the Ravi isn’t acquired by RUDA, it would be snapped up by developers who operate with far less oversight. At least, he says, “we make sure that it is planned according to the green standards.”

RUDA now awaits a judgment from the Lahore High Court. If the project doesn’t get permission to go ahead, the authority will likely appeal the decision, sending the case to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, some farmers have agreed to sell their land after negotiating better payments with RUDA.

Malik Ghulam Murtaza, a 56-year-old landowner, says he started to see the development more positively after compensation talks with RUDA. He believes the price he was offered will be enough to give his family a better life and he’s convinced the environmental plans will benefit everyone. 

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