The Lahore Canal has been the subject of much controversy and public attention ever since the Punjab government first decided to widen the road from Dharampura to Thokar Niaz Baig in 2006.

In 2009, however, the conflict between the governmental authorities and the concerned citizens of Pakistan, under the collective voice of Lahore Bachao Tehreek, was laid to rest by the landmark decision of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in the suo motu case No. 25 of 2009, under which limited widening of the road was sanctioned by it on the direction that the Lahore Canal be declared a national heritage park. And that the recommendations of the Mediation Committee - an independent committee of experts having illustrious background of public service in various fields, formed by Dr Parvez Hasan [independent mediator] after consultation with the learned counsel for the petitioner Mr Ahmer Bilal Soofi and counsel for the provincial government Mr Salman Butt - be adopted in letter and in spirit, which called for amongst other things:

The declaration of the Lahore Canal as a Heritage Urban Park;

The correctness of the ‘incorrect underpasses’ on the Canal Road;

People-centric planning; and

Public participation in the Lahore Canal governance, through an Act to be passed by the Provincial Assembly of Punjab.

Against this backdrop, the Standing Committee of the Provincial Assembly is scheduled to conduct its next meeting on November 29 (today), concerning the draft legislation on the Lahore Canal Heritage Park Bill 2012. It is encouraging to see that this time around the committee is adopting an inclusive approach towards developing the legislation as recommended by the Mediation Committee; and is taking a positive step towards increased public-private partnership and community participation in a matter of public concern, such as the canal’s management and governance, by inviting the stakeholders to attend the meeting and express their opinions at the drafting stage of the proposed bill. But to what extent will they accommodate the recommendations made by the stakeholders, is a pertinent question left to be answered only by time.

Having said that, the Standing Committee may be following all that is procedurally correct by allowing the stakeholders to make their comments and recommendations. But if they are not considered, then it can be said that the proposed bill does not factor the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court judgment; and instead reflects the mala fide attempt by the government to indicate participation when, in fact, there has been none.

For instance, a closer reading of the draft legislation clearly reveals that the proposed bill is not well-conceived and in no way furthers the recommendations of the Mediation Committee and the orders of the Supreme Court. In that, it does not declare the park as a “public trust”, nor does it provide for its proper geographical description. It allows extensive powers to the government to effect all regulations with respect to the park, including the ability of the government to “alter” its boundaries under Section 4 of the bill.

In addition, its provisions for the “prohibited activities”, which include further widening of the Canal Road and felling, tapping, burning or otherwise damaging, destroying or removing of any tree or plant, are subject to change by the concerned governmental authority under Section 3(5). The proposed bill even does not include any prohibition on further widening of the Canal Road, which was the basis for several members of the Mediation Committee to agree to the recommended partial widening approved by the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, as noted by the experts, there is no mechanism for an effective public-private partnership - the constitution and working of the Advisory Committee is one-sided and under the complete control of the government under Sections 5, 6 and 7 of the proposed bill. It is here to be noted that the Mediation Committee had made 18 recommendations covered in paragraph 8 of the Supreme Court judgment and several of them have not even been addressed, such as cleaning and improving the water quality of the canal, people-centric planning, ecosystem preservation etc.

Hence, it is not incorrect to say that the proposed legislation on the Canal Heritage Park has a huge disconnect with the observations and recommendations of the Mediation Committee, which were to be adopted in letter and in spirit according to the direction of the Supreme Court; and if not implemented, the government could be held in contempt of court.

As a resident of Lahore, I strongly feel that the recommendations of the Mediation Committee should be followed by the Punjab government as it has promised to do so. The stakeholders, too, should take this message forward with them when they attend the meeting of the Standing Committee today and request the Provincial Assembly to at least include these observations for consideration for public-private partnership. Lastly, the Supreme Court must vigilantly observe the passing of the bill and to take any necessary steps if it is done in contravention of its order.

The writer is an investment law consultant, and holds an LL.B (Hons) and LL.M in Law and Development from the University of London. She was a member of Lahore Bachao Tehreek.

Email: nidamahmood