Handover halted – 02 Apr 2023

SOMETIMES individuals and institutions need to be saved from themselves. The Lahore High Court`s ruling on Friday to stop the handover of 45,267 acres of land on a lease to the army for the purposes of corporate farming can be seen in such a light. The security establishment has in recent months been the target of trenchant criticism for its alleged political meddling, and it scarcely needs to open up another front. When news emerged last month that the Punjab caretaker government had signed an agreement to transfer over 45,000 acres located in three districts of the province to the army under a joint venture agreement with the provincial government and private firms, social media lit up in indignation. A public interest litigation organisation filed a petition on the grounds that under the Elections Act 2017, a caretaker government was limited to performing day-to-day functions and was not empowered to take policy decisions of a permanent nature. Giving the said acreage on lease for 20 years (extendable to 30 years), they contended, was therefore not in its purview.

While this argument is in the context of a caretaker government`s powers, even an elected government cannot parcel out public land so arbitrarily. The lawyers for the petition expanded on how the aforementioned transfer was also a violation of the Doctrine of Public Trust, a legal principle according to which the government holds in trust certain natural and cultural resources for public use. Questionable use of public land has been the subject of several decisions of the superior courts. In January last year, the Islamabad High Court ruled that the Pakistan Navy`s sailing club and farmhouses on national park land were illegal and ordered their demolition. A few days later, it also declared illegal the military`s claim to 8,000 acres of Margalla Hills National Park. When news of the transfer of land for corporate farming emerged, military sources clarified that ownership of the land will remain with the Punjab government and that retired army officers will manage the project, whose profits will go to the locals, the provincial government and the firms investing in the project. However, one knows only too well that when corporate interests get involved, local beneficiaries are relegated to the bottom of the totem pole. Powerful sectors should be more mindful of their duty to the people.

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