The Exploited Land Acquisition Act
The emerging surge of urbanization in the government of Sharif Brothers has raised many fingers on the laws in place in the country, especially in the Province of Punjab. Starting from the project of ring road, to canal widening to the establishment of expressway and now to the signal free corridor and the orange line metro train. All these have placed the authority of law and accountability in question.
This ongoing mission of making Lahore a city of underpasses and roads, under the garb of development and urbanization, has made lives unfortunate for people whose land is being grabbed by the authorities in the name of public interest under the umbrella of law.
Pertinent to mention here is the Land Acquisition Act 1894 (hereinafter the “Act”) which is currently in place and gives the government power to acquire any land for public purposes. A bare reading of the Act reveals that under Section 4, the Collector, or in case of a company, the Provincial Government has the power to acquire any land after giving a notification under Section 5 of the Act. After hearing objections (raised within thirty days of such notification) under Section 5-A, a declaration is required to be made under Section 6 that this particular land is needed by the government. After declaration, orders of acquisition would be taken by the Collector on the directions of the Commissioner under Section 7 of the Act, which would lead to demarcation of property under Section 8. Subsequently, after issuing notices to the interested persons under Section 9, the Collector shall make an award pertaining to the area of land and compensation to be awarded to such interested persons under Section 11 of the Act.
Unfortunately, the authorities, along with this cumbersome and detailed procedure to acquire any land, do have another dictatorial power under the same Act. This bypass process is of Section 17 of the Act. This particular Section chalks out that in cases where there is urgency, the Commissioner may direct the Collector to acquire and take possession of the land within fifteen days of the issuance of first notification bypassing the rest of the process explained in the preceding para. However, the provision of sub-section 2 of Section 17 of the Act specifically provides for certain events where it becomes necessary to acquire the land which include sudden change in the channel of navigable river, or where the land is required by the railway administration for maintenance of their traffic or in any unforeseen emergency.
It is pertinent to note that the words urgency and unforeseen emergency have been given a very restricted interpretation as illustrated by our superior Courts. The honorable Courts have been reluctant to adjudicate upon the word ‘urgency’ in a way that it favors the unfortunate people losing their land. Starting from Jan Mean’s case (PLD 1965 Dhaka 36) to the case of Muhammad Afzal Bhatti Vs Province of Punjab (1997 SCMR 296), the Courts have laid down that the question, whether urgency exists or not, is subjective decision of the authority/commissioner, and is not liable to scrutiny by the honorable Courts.
The dicta laid down by the superior Courts in numerous judgments have given unfettered power to the authorities to acquire land in any locality under the garb of emergency circumstances as provided in Section 17 of the Act.
We, as the residents of Lahore, have witnessed the ground reality relating to grabbing of land from the local residents in the name of development and urbanization. Members of civic society, conservation societies as well as the environment activists have sat in protests against the unstoppable repairing of Lahore and grabbing of the land, however, the same seems to be a futile exercise. Lawyers have tried to convince the honorable Courts on the issue of non-existence of emergency circumstances for acquiring such land on the one hand, and on the illegal actions of the Lahore Development Authority on the other hand, but they could either not be able to prove their case on the balance of probabilities, or, where the lawyers and activists were successful enough, the judgments were overturned.
In the presence of Section 17 of the Act, and no precedent exactly defining what an ‘urgency’ or ‘unforeseen emergency’ within the meaning of Section 17 is, the lands of the unfortunate ones would be kept on being acquired under the shade of this legal protection. Protests and sit-ins have never changed the fate of law, it is the evolution of law that matters the most in securing the rights of each one of us.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which he might be associated.