Monday February 06, 2023

PTI govt’s another mega scandal: Forests Dept land in Malam Jabba leased out illegally

January 03, 2018

PESHAWAR: An illegal lease of 275 acres of Forest Department land in Malam Jabba has emerged as a mega scandal during the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and proving to be a headache for it.

According to official record and sources, political personalities and the bureaucracy connived to lease out Forests Department’s protected land to a private company, Samson, for 33 years, without caring for rules and regulations, for construction of Chairlift and skiing resort.

Under the terms of reference (ToRs), only five acres of land was to be leased for construction of a hotel and 12 acres for the chairlift project. Government officials also leased 258 acres of land in sheer violation of Forest Ordinance 2002, though the forest lands could not be brought into any other use under the law. The chief minister relaxed the laws allowing lease of land for only 15 years, and extended the period to 33 years.

KP Tourism Corporation Managing Director Mushtaq Khan admitted that a mistake was committed regarding the lease period, saying that the agreement was being reviewed and the lease period being limited to 17 years. However, he failed to give any satisfactory reply regarding signing of the illegal agreement.

According to details, the KP government decided to construct a hotel at Malam Jabba (Swat) on February 27, 2014. Under the government ToRs, a five-star hotel was to be constructed on five acres of land, and under the BOT (build, operate & transfer) terms and conditions, the owners of the hotel was to get access to 270 acres of the Forest Department lands. The Board of Investment & Trade (BoIT) released an advertisement on March 3, 2014, asking companies to submit the expression of interest (EoI) in the project. The interested parties were asked to submit proposals under BOT terms and conditions. The date for submission of proposals was fixed March 31, 2014, which was later extended till April 10, 2014. Seven companies submitted the EoI letters, including Waqas Traders Islamabad, Zafarullah Khan Peshawar, Trade Source Lahore, Samson Group of Companies Lahore, SMP Islamabad, Parks Pakistan Lahore, and Test Enterprises Lahore. A committee was formed under ex-additional chief secretary Khalid Pervaiz to finalise details of the lease agreement. Other members of the committee were: Secretary Finance, Secretary Tourism, Chairman SDA, MD Tourism Corporation, Director General Galyat Development Authority, and Chief Executive Officer BoIT.

The incumbent chief secretary, Azam Khan, was then serving as secretary Tourism. The committee constituted a sub-committee under MD Tourism Corporation Mushtaq Khan to look into all proposals submitted by the private firms and send them for approval of the committee.

As the committee had not set any criteria for selection of the company, which made the entire process suspicious. The sub-committee short-listed three companies on the basis of technical assessment and gave Parks Pakistan 76.5 points, SMP Islamabad 63 and Samson Group of Companies 60.5 points. However, when the financial details of the companies were taken into account, Samson Group was declared number one with 72.35 points.

Interestingly, Samson deposited Rs6 million with the application on April 8, and then deposited Rs12 million on May 15, after lapse of 35 days of the deadline. However, the sub-committee accepted it and gave final approval on May 26, 2014.

Under the rules, decision about the final bidder had to be made on the first bidding. On Aug 12, 2014, secretary tourism gave a briefing on the bidding process to a meeting held with Additional Chief Secretary Khalid Pervaiz in the chair. The chair asked MD Tourism Mushtaq Khan who was the legal expert to look into details of the draft agreement. The MD replied that legal expert of the department gave approval for it.

According to documents available with the reporter, Law Secretary Muhammad Arifain objected to lease period of 33 years, saying lease period should be 15 years under the law and it could be extended maximum by another 15 years. However, Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak relaxed the rules and extended the lease period to 33 years. A written agreement was signed between the KP government and Samson company.

The PTI-led KP government violated all laws and leased out 275 acres of Forest Department land, instead of five acres, to the Samson company on Sept 24, 2014. Under clause 16 of the agreement, the provincial government is bound to provide following facilities to the company:-

A. The government would provide 275-acre land to the company for 33 years lease period, which is extendable by 20 years more. On five acres of land, a hotel would be constructed and on 270 acres, skiing and chairlift would be constructed.

B. The government would help get no objection certificates (NOC) from all departments concerned.

C. The government would construct a road for the company.

D. The government would provide electricity facility to the company’s constructions and installations.

Under the agreement, the hotel would be constructed in two years and remaining constructions would be completed in three years. The chairlift will also be installed in two years.

On April 15, 2015, former chairman of the Ehtesab Commission, General (retd) Hamid Khan, expressed his serious reservations over the agreement and asked the government to review it. The CM Inspection Team had also termed the agreement illegal and launched investigation into it. However, nothing came out as the Ehtesab Commission has become redundant, while the CM Inspection Team’s report has been thrown into dustbin.

General (retd) Hamid Khan had raised objections in his letter, IW/EC/MalamJabba/ 01, on April 15, 2015, saying the bidding process was suspicious. The Samson company submitted the amount late and it has no experience in hotel industry. The letter said that the lease contract was given to a favourite company.

Similar suspicions were expressed by the CM Inspection Team head in a letter (PIT/2015/ INSP/27/43-0541) on February 26, 2016.

According to official documents, three other departments – Environment, Wildlife, and Forests – also objected to the project. However, the Tourism Department neither consulted these departments before leasing out the land nor paid any heed to their objections later on.

The PTI-led government has violated the Forest Ordinance 2002 in this agreement. Section 105(1) of the ordinance says that the forest lands could not be brought into use any other purpose except for growing of forests or related activities.

After the Malam Jabba lease agreement was made public in 2015, the Forest Department stopped Samson company from carrying out any construction works on 270-acre protected lands. The company filed a writ petition, No P-340, in the Peshawar High Court on Jan 19, 2016, and made respondents seven KP government departments.

The petition requested the court to bar the Forest secretary and district forest officer from interfering in construction works on 275 acres of land, leased out to the company, as it is a violation of the agreement reached with the provincial government. The company said it had spent billions of rupees on construction work of the hotels and installation of chairlift, and stopping them from work could cost them heavily.

On Feb 15, 2017, the company informed the court that all reservations of the government departments were removed in a meeting on Dec 13, 2016, therefore the petition should be disposed of. On the same date, the PHC disposed of the petition.

According to sources, NAB too has taken notice of the situation, and the provincial government is now cleverly trying to amend the lease agreement to avoid accountability, for which a summary has been sent to the chief minister.

Although Imran Khan talks about a corruption-free Pakistan, he remained aloof to this mega scandal and didn’t take action even after the media broke the news.

The Forest Department officials, on the condition of not being named, said the hotel owners were stopped from work in the protected area. The Tourism Department couldn’t lease out the forest land, but they were not in a position to say anything more on the topic, they added.

The officials, on repeated questions, said the forest land could not be used for any other purpose.

When contacted, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Corporation MD Mushtaq Khan said the agreement was signed to promote tourism by constructing a four or five-star hotel despite the fact that Malam Jabba already had a PTDC hotel and chairlift.

He admitted that the lease deal was wrong as the forest land could not be leased out. They, however, were revisiting the document through which five and 12 acres of land would be given for the hotel and chairlift respectively, while the right to access was to be given to the company owner in the remaining area, Mushtaq added.

When asked about the people responsible for the illegal agreement, he said he was the sub-committee chairman while the committee, headed by the chief secretary, had given the approval.

Mushtaq said the agreement could be reviewed as the company had not constructed any structure on the forest land. Meanwhile, the CEO of Parks, Malik Khalid Khan, confirmed that the Samson Group had been rewarded without having the required expertise and ability. The Samson Group had never installed a chairlift and only his company had the expertise in Pakistan, he added.

According to Malik, the ToRs made it mandatory that the companies having international standard of developed countries like the US, Switzerland and Italy could install the chairlifts. But the Samson Group opted for a substandard and cheap Chinese product. He said the objections he raised against the company on technical basis were rejected.