Why Ravi River Urban Development project was so controversial?

 The environmental experts, urban planners and local farmers oppose this project from the beginning but PTI government didn't pay attention to their valid concerns

As we reported yesterday that the Lahore High Court on Tuesday, January 25 declared the controversial Ravi River Urban Development project and Authority illegal and ordered to return the money back to Punjab government it had obtained  to acquire the land and to develop the infrastructure.

What was Ravi River Project? 

We are providing some background information about the project and opposition it faced from the day one. It was a widely advertised much touted project and prime Minister Imran Khan was taking keen personal interest in this project. It was a flagship project of PTI government. 

This project was launched in August 2020 and PM Imran khan himself inaugurated the project touted as game changer for River Ravi and Lahore. It was a plan to develop a new city on the other bank of Ravi River. The plan was to remodel the river Ravi and build residential and commercial facilities spread over 46 kilometers. 

The PM Imran Khan said the following after launching the project "Today on the eve of launching RUDA website for Ravi city one of the biggest mega project we have launched in our history, I congratulate the nation and Lahoris. This shall save Lahore by stopping spread of unplanned urban sprawl, raise water level, revive river Ravi preventing it from becoming a sewerage nullah."

An authority was established in the name of Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA) to build this new city through legislation in Punjab Assembly in 2019.

The RUDA website says that "the  new city aims to cater to the major concerns of overpopulation, traffic congestion, heavy pollution, water scarcity and flooding. Ravi Riverfront City will provide the people of Lahore a space where they can live life to the fullest and embrace a multitude of opportunities, while keeping the city’s rich culture and heritage alive."

Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the five-trillion-rupee Ravi City megaproject. Envisioned as the second largest planned city in Pakistan after Islamabad, the proposed development is planned to cover 102,074 acres, catering to a population of 10 to 12.5 million people (equivalent to Lahore’s current population), over a 30-year period.

The proposed project seeks to revive River Ravi as a freshwater source through the construction of barrages and lakes, and develop “high quality residential, industrial, commercial and recreation zones” on both banks in northwest Lahore.

Advertisements of the project show a ‘Dubai-like’ city, with high-rises located along a waterfront and, what look like, Caucasian families cycling and walking around promenades. The project website also states that the residential city will build “luxury style residential development which will result in increasing land values and market interest.”

Local farmers opposed the project

The local farmers and communities resisted the acquisition of land for this project. The farmers organised protest demonstrations against the forced acquisition of their lands by RUDA. the human rights groups, architects, urban planners, political and social activists and environmental experts and lawyers joined the protest movement of local farmers and communities against this mega project. 

The protest movement was expressing its valid concerns and tried to negotiate with the Punjab government and RUDA.  

Both the Punjab government and RUDA ignored the concerns of protesting farmers, local communities and experts and went ahead with the project without following the proper procedure to determine the environmental impacts of this project. 

The RUDA started work on the project even before the public hearing of Punjab Environment Protection Department. 

When farmers and different societal groups exhausted all other options to address their grievances they decided to approach Lahore High Court. The honourable Justice Shahid Karim of LHC heard the case for one year and finally declared this project and authority illegal and strikes it down. 

Impacts on local communities

According to its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, the project will impact about one hundred thousand persons belonging to 15,000 households. The livelihood of the majority of this population is dependent on agriculture, farming and cattle rearing within this site. Among this population, 20,000 persons, belonging to almost 100 villages located in the riverbed, will be displaced in their entirety and will have to be resettled. In fact, their displacement has already begun with the commencement of works on the project, while no alternative housing or means of livelihood has been provided to them.

Housing for the rich

The conversion of one hundred thousand acres of agricultural land for housing the rich is brazenly ignorant of ground realities and the need of the hour, which is to provide affordable housing to the poor. The conversion of agricultural land into developed plots is a repetition of mistakes of the past; because of which one-third of Lahore’s population belonging to the upper-income group already take up two-thirds of Lahore’s urban sprawl.

The population density in residential areas for the affluent, like DHA, Bahria Town, Lake City, etc. is less than 30 persons per acre. The RRUDP is poised to repeat the same inequitable distribution of resources. Such a plan is in clear violation of the present government’s manifesto of providing affordable housing, as well as its assurances of allowing no encroachments on agricultural land.

Land grab, speculation and profits

The preceding two decades are marked by considerable growth of private capital in real estate development, either in the shape of private developer-led schemes, or the partnering of private firms with public and parastatal entities.

Between 2001 and 2010, Bahria Town alone acquired and sold nearly 4,000 acres of land (mostly without formal approval from the LDA), which on its own was greater than all public-sector land development projects in the city combined. Private developers are increasingly engaged with parastatal and military-run entities, such as the Defence Housing Authority (DHA), in land acquisition partnerships to create new residential schemes that are unsustainable in the long-run.

The returns from investing in real estate are sizable and outstrip returns from other asset classes. This is precisely why private developers and investors remain fixated on acquiring rural land, with little regard for environmental and socio-economic sustainability. These returns remain mostly undocumented and untaxed, given the high prevalence of cash-based transactions in real estate, and the popularity of benaami (proxy) investments to mask real beneficiaries.

What is, thus, inevitable then is the passage of unregulated returns in real estate into the political domain, both to phase out zoning and building regulations, as well as to retain protection for the near-instant rents accrued from converting cheap arable land into high-value investible files and plots.

Since stepping into office in 2018, the current federal and provincial government has taken several steps to lubricate the speculative functioning of the real estate industry, by providing blanket source-of-funds amnesties in the construction sector, including for the purchase of land in new developments; and by setting up a commission to validate environmental and planning irregularities for pre-existing housing projects, through the payment of small fines.

The Ravi Riverfront project must, therefore, be understood within this political nexus marked by political collusion, speculative practices and outsized gains obtained from converting rural land into investible commodities.

Environmental impact

The expected private investment of Rs5trillion (Rs 500 billion) on the development of the new city, which would be spread over an area of 100,000 acres and straddle the river north of Lahore, may boost construction-related industries and create thousands of jobs over the next several years. But can the project, which is being undertaken without an independent, comprehensive socioeconomic impact assessment, help Lahore tackle its numerous civic problems: shortage of safe drinking water for a majority of its population, inadequate drainage, overpopulation, degradation of the living environment, shortage of schools for children etc? 

The answer is in the negative. Instead, it is feared that the scheme will further weaken the delicate ecological balance as floodplains are being used to build high-rises, and the poor and their livelihoods will be upstaged to pave the way for luxury living of the wealthy and powerful.

The RRUDP will encroach upon the floodplain, altering the basic natural landscape of the river irreversibly. This means that River Ravi will have to be channelised, which goes against all principles of sustainable development and the ecological sustainability of a river and its environment. It is important to remember that riverbanks are an integral part of the river ecosystem and that the hydraulics of a river should be maintained without defining any edges for the river.

 Keeping this in mind, the channelisation of River Ravi and building 3 barrages along the length of the project (spanning 46 km) is simply not an option. Employing river training to reclaim land for urban development cannot be considered an improvement to the environment by any definition.

                                                                    Khalid Bhatti 

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