It has been called Pakistan’s answer to Dubai, a multi-million dollar new development of skyscrapers, futuristic domes and floating walkways.
But Ravi riverfront City, described as the “world’s largest modern riverfront city,” also faces accusations of rampant land grabbing by the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, which has championed the project. Hundreds of thousands of farmers who could never afford to live in the modern urban utopia are now at risk of being evicted.
In addition to the human cost of the development, which is built on a 40,000-hectare (100,000-acre) site adjacent to Pakistan’s megacity Lahore, many fear it will cause environmental devastation to the Ravi River, currently under ecological restoration, and the surrounding forests. .
According to the government, the new city will be an alternative to London and Dubai for Pakistani and foreign tourists, create millions of jobs and relieve pressure on the land in Lahore. Khan has supported the project, describing it as “essential” for the development of Pakistan. The government says that $ 8bn (£ 5.8bn) in foreign money has now been earmarked for the project with the biggest investors coming from China.
However, last month, a Lahore superior court judge found “serious irregularities” in the Ravi riverbank project and said it would benefit land developers.
To oversee the city’s implementation, the Ravi Urban Development Authority (Ruda) was established last year. But in a move that opponents described as “draconian and unprecedented,” the government granted Ruda complete legal immunity so that no lawsuit or legal challenge could be brought against the project or anyone working on it.
The government has also enforced Section 4, which means it can legally acquire any land for public purposes, even though the Ravi Riverfront will be a commercial company.
In recent months, thousands of farmers and residents of the lands where the city will be located have gathered to voice their opposition. The Punjab state government responded by pressing charges against 90 of the protesting farmers.
Of the 41,000 hectares (102,271 acres) that the government will acquire on behalf of private developers, 85% is agricultural land occupied by nearly a million farmers, workers and entrepreneurs. Many claim that the government refuses to pay market value for the farms and instead claims that their land is almost worthless.
“The government is seizing our land for urban development and displacing us from the farms we have occupied for centuries,” says Chaudhary Mahmood Ahmed, 65, a fourth-generation farmer whose land lies within the 46 km long stretch of the river where the new city is located. It will be built.
Ahmed says that 50 people depended on his farm for their livelihoods and compared the actions of the Imran Khan government to those of the East India Company, the British trading company that notoriously colonized parts of India in the 18th and 19th centuries. “They are taking land from the poor,” he says. “It is unacceptable to us.”
Muhammad Munir is one of those who have been growing potatoes and animal feed for decades. He says that farmers in the area are essential to 13 million Lahore residents with fruits and vegetables, in addition to 70% of the city’s milk.
Munir says: “The government has been declaring our fertile lands barren so they can be taken from us for pennies. We would die and kill for our lands. This is a life or death situation for us. “
Many speak bitterly of land being seized to benefit Pakistan’s elite.
“The government is taking the roof off us. They offer so little compensation, ”says Bushra Bibi, 65, who lives with her five children in a one-bedroom apartment on designated Ravi Riverfront land. “We cannot rebuild a house with this small amount that will be given to us. We will be homeless. “
Although the project was first conceived by a previous government in 2013, it was declared impracticable and was abandoned. An initial feasibility study found that it would be nearly impossible to supply enough water to the development without $ 3 billion in new infrastructure. But with Pakistan’s economy in a tailspin and the government interested in projects to boost recovery, the Ravi Riverfront project was taken over again by the Khan administration two years ago and given the green light.
Mian Mustafa Rasheed, head of Ravi’s Urban Development Victims Committee, says it is a plan exclusively for “industrialists and the agrarian mafia who have close ties to the Khan government,” and alleges that the authorities “have been threatening people individually to stop protesting. ” against the project ”.
The government and Ruda did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Nevertheless, talking to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaperImran Amin, executive director of Ruda, said that “we have begun to implement the compensation package prepared especially for the owners and affected of the first and largest urban project in the country.”
The true environmental impact of the project is not yet known as no evaluation has been carried out. WWF-Pakistan has already presented a challenge to the project, stating that the plans to “realize the river’s natural floodplain” were a “clear violation” of the recommendations of the Ravi River Commission, a body with a legal mandate from the high court to restore the natural ecology of the river.
“Lahore is already famous for its pollution, but if they build this Ravi Riverfront development next to it, the pollution will just double,” says Rafay Alam, lawyer and environmental activist. “It’s so absurd.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism