What price the project?

August 23, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar contends that the River Ravi Urban Development Project (RRUDP) will affect five districts comprising 190 villages inhabited by some five million people

As India was building dams over the Rivers Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, water kept flowing on the Pakistan side till mid-1970s. The flora and fauna thrived, anglers could fish in these waters and boating clubs of colleges continued their contests here. But all these cultural activities have become a thing of the past and the younger generation now finds it difficult to believe in all of the above.

The Indus Water Treaty, as brokered by the World Bank, did not include the construction of link canals from Chenab and Jhelum rivers to provide relief to the farmers. Resultantly, the water that replenished the ground aquifers was no longer available and the well had to be dug at least 900 feet deep for potable water.

When milch cattle were banished from the Lahore city, they chose to cross the Ravi into Sheikhupura and other districts and established big and small dairy farms and allied activities. Large tracts were used to grow fodder. Fish that had died in the polluted river too was now bred in farms (in ponds) that the farmers had constructed to store the harvested occasional rain water. Fresh vegetables and fruits, especially the guava, became available as far as Sharaqpur.

Staple foods like wheat and rice are abundantly grown here, due to favourable weathers and soil fertility. Cattle herding provided extra income in the form of healthy meat for Lahoris. Poultry industry and the required feed made this area famous. When Dek and Rohi drains were polluted due to lack of riverside sources, the paper-making industry grew along their banks to release acidic effluent. Agriculture and industry thrived and attracted more investors and labour.

This whole geographical unit had learnt to survive without the fear of annual floods. It re-invented a new economy. With the construction of connecting motorways the construction companies and real estate marketers thought of parceling this lush-green land into housing schemes. They thought of developing the River Ravi city.

As the natural source of water in the Ravi dried up, the channel was converted into a stinking disposal of untreated waste, industrial and domestic. On both the banks, settlers, no more expecting any floods, built shanty houses using the big stones that once protected the city. Unhygienic slums further degraded the environment. Greenery and forest cover were decimated. The city lords came up with the idea of building a mega city on the river recently. Large tracts are to be acquired for the grandiose scheme. The ‘bright’ idea is not new. It was floated during the previous government too when they, being obsessed with the Metro Bus and Orange Train, needed to generate finances.

Pakistan is largely dependent on agricultural produce to sustain its economy. Mass urbanisation is a bad idea. According to the project plan, large tracts of agricultural land were to be secured through Land Acquisition Act, 1894, the notification for which was issued in the Punjab Gazette of November 4, 2013. The details of the thousands of khasra numbers are all given in the document available with this writer.

Alarmed by the plans of the government of the day, hundreds of thousands of agriculturalists formed the Ravi Kissan Ittehad (RKI) to press for their demands and wowed to defend their lands and way of life. This project would affect five districts comprising 190 villages inhabited by some five million people. According to them, this area is very fertile. The people could lose their residences and livelihood. With no place to keep their buffaloes and other animals the whole system that had sustained them ever since the man had entered the ‘food growing’ stage could collapse.

Currently, what these areas produce is worth billions of rupees. The old scheme has been given a fresh impetus. Speculators are already on a public buying spree. Some local farmers have been lured into selling their small land holdings for sums that would appear a lot for their financial needs. Some settlements have already been sold and cleared. If this scheme is implemented the city of Lahore and the surrounding areas would lose their source of livelihood and food.

The government ought to have carried out a detailed survey of the land and invited opinions and suggestions from the local population who could be compelled to migrate. Forced eviction against a paltry compensation could create a law and order situation.

The RKI got a stay order on the scheme. One of its heads, Mohammad Shoaib, died under the impression that his and others’ children would not again have to fear the dreaded scheme. He had inherited a large tract of agricultural land along with a fish farm from his grandfather near Kot Abdul Maalik. Incidentally, he was a fifth-generation merchant in fruits and vegetables in the Tollinton Market which they vacated on verbal assurances of allocation of their legal portion.

The whole scheme was divided into five routes, or zones, namely Nain Sukh to Ferozwala; from Old Ravi Bridge to Ravi siphon; Bhati Chowk — Gaoshala to Thokar Niaz Beg; and Niaz Beg to Sundar Industrial Zone. But it has been taken up again with even larger area.

A saner approach would be to plant only indigenous trees massively along the polluted river, all the way to the Panjnad where it meets the other rivers. Local trees are natural barriers against pollutants and soil erosion and can invite rainfall and lower the temperatures. The notorious alien tree, corno-corpus, should be banned. The concept of water harvesting which is older than the Indus Valley water tank and is seen in the village ponds needs to be propagated. Waste Water Treatment plants for industrial zones and housing schemes should be made compulsory and strictly enforced.

The Lahore Conservation Society (LCS) held two Zoom conferences during the coronavirus lockdown and apprised the powers that be of the likely ill effects of the scheme. Their findings were reported in print and electronic media also. We’re hoping for a positive response. One of the young participants, Mehreen passed a very pertinent remark. She said that such projects should be vehemently opposed because once they are implemented, we would have to live with them which means incurring huge, costly bail-outs and subsidies, just like the Metro Bus and Orange Train projects.

Our last Zoom meeting turned out to be more like a webinar in which as many as 47 people participated, each giving thought-provoking input. Follow-ups are expected once the LCS goes through the planned elections to induct young leadership and revive its tradition of holding more regular meetings, especially the last Wednesday of the month meeting, and holding elections every two years.

(This dispatch is dedicated to the late Shoaib, a member of the LCS)

The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

What price the project?