Ravi Urban Development Project: Legal Perspective on Environmental Impediments

Background of the Project

The city of Lahore is the capital of the province of Punjab and a regional urban center with commercial, financial, industrial and socio-cultural significance. The exponential increase in Lahore’s population over the years has created a dire necessity for increased urban housing. In this regard, the Ravi Urban Development Project was initiated in the year 2013, but due to the funding constraints the Project could not be executed at the time.

This year, the Project has been reinstated by Prime Minister Imran Khan. It envisages state-of-the-art urban development spanning over 46 kilometres along both sides of the River Ravi, from Siphon up to its confluence with Hudaira Drain. Moreover, the Project aims to rehabilitate and develop the dying and polluted River Ravi into a perennial fresh water body, with high-quality waterfront urban development that will eventually accommodate a population of twenty five million.

The government is considerate of the environmental and ecological impediments to the Project and so far intends to remain committed to mitigate such challenges. The Project is aimed to be developed after taking into account all technical data, ensuring protection of the flood plain, cleaning the waste disposal being dumped into the River Ravi and mitigating any potential loss to agricultural life as a result of the Project’s activities, in consonance with the applicable and regulatory laws of the land.

However, the Project has also attracted criticism from the Lahore Conservation Society which has raised a few objections with regard to the ecological and environmental aspects of the Project, which will be discussed from a legal standpoint in this article.

Sustainable Development Goals

The unsustainability of the Project from an ecological, environmental and financial perspective argued by the Society seems to reflect a myopic view of the ever-changing and developing world, especially in view of the ever-increasing population of Lahore, a provincial capital. It is submitted that the Project has been conceived in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN). Under the 2030 Agenda of the UN, the economic, social and development dimensions of “sustainable development” are to be integrated in harmony. They are to be construed as a whole and not in a fragmented manner.[1] One goal should not encroach upon other goals and if we examine SDG 17 (global partnerships and cross-sector collaboration), the Project aims to accomplish a majority of the goals listed under it by providing state-of-the-art infrastructure and facilities, sustainable communities, job opportunities and further healthcare and educational opportunities to its residents. Moreover, the Society’s argument with regard to the Project’s potential detrimental effects to the environment is also frail as the Project intends to plant vegetation around the current barren lands of River Ravi and help with its sanitization and treatment, which even the River Ravi Commission has, to date, been unsuccessful with.

Sustainable development is no doubt an evolving concept and it is noteworthy to mention that under our domestic law the Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken a pragmatic approach in its landmark judgment pertaining to an environmental issue in the case Cutting of Trees for Canal Widening Project, Lahore (Suo Motu Case No 25/2009).

In the case mentioned above, the honorable Supreme Court not only relied on the definition of “sustainable development” mentioned in Section 2 of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997 (now Punjab Environmental Protection Act 1997), but also considered the following definition of ‘sustainable communities’:

“Sustainable communities are defined in towns and cities that have taken steps to remain healthy over the long term. Sustainable communities have a strong sense of place. They have a vision that is embraced and actively promoted by all of the key sectors of society, including businesses, disadvantaged groups, environmentalists, civic associations, government agencies, and religious organizations. They are places that build on their assets and dare to be innovative. These communities value healthy ecosystems, use resources efficiently, and actively seek to retain and enhance a locally based economy. There is a pervasive volunteer spirit that is rewarded by concrete results. Partnerships between and among government, the business sector, and nonprofit organizations are common. Public debate in these communities is engaging, inclusive and constructive. Unlike traditional community development approaches, sustainability strategies emphasize: the whole community (instead of just disadvantaged neighborhoods); ecosystem protection; meaningful and broad-based citizen participation; and economic self-reliance.”[2]

The Supreme Court justified the widening of Canal Road in Lahore by allowing trees and vegetation to be cut down which mostly consisted of eucalyptus trees and which, contrary to popular belief, were proven to be detrimental to the environment. In light of the facts of the case and the interpretation given to sustainable development communities, it can be concluded that projects which enhance infrastructural development by maximizing their assets and being innovative fall within the ambit of sustainable development of an empowered community. Moreover, the definition has also reiterated how partnerships between the government, businesses and non-profit organizations can lead to constructive outcomes in a civil and empowered society.

Ecosystem

The Project also claims to value the ecosystem of River Ravi and appears committed to legally resolving any environmental impediments for the betterment of its development. Moreover, its concept is not only in sync with the hortatory non-binding goals of the United Nations but is also supported by the doctrine of precedent of our Supreme Court.

The argument that the channelization of River Ravi is against the principles of sustainable development and ecological sustainability has little weight at this point. Whether or not any purported channelization of River Ravi will affect the ecology of the River is a question to be determined by the relevant experts and consultants in the field. Their recommendations in this regard shall be implemented in the execution of the Project. During the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process, such reports should be presented to the concerned agencies for their approval under the Punjab Environment Protection Act 1997 (PEPA 1997).

Moreover, the Society’s argument that riverbanks are an integral part of the river ecosystem and the hydraulics of rivers where there is no defined edge should be maintained, is to be decided upon after comprehensive reports by the relevant experts and consultants in the field. During the EIA process, such reports will be presented to the concerned agencies for their approval under PEPA.

Regulatory Laws and Approvals

The Punjab Flood Plain Regulation Act 2016 governs the land that may be declared a ‘flood plain’. Under Section 3 of the Act, only the Authority formed under the Flood Plain Act can designate a flood plain. Furthermore, many major cities of the world have been built on river embankments. Prime examples include River Thames, which flows through the city of Greater London and River Hudson, which flows through New York City and Jersey City.

The disposal of waste into the Ravi is an ongoing concern for the River Ravi Commission. Although the Commission has been trying to eradicate such contamination through the bioremediation process, the status of its success is still pending. The Project appears conscious of the fact that the industrial and sewage waste of Lahore is being pumped into the River Ravi stream making the sanitary levels of water extremely hazardous. It aims to eradicate such contamination through the construction of barrages and sewage treatment plants.

The Lahore Development Authority (LDA), being a government institution, can exercise its lawful right to construct the Project, in consonance with the sustainable development goals mentioned above and subject to the permissions and regulatory requirements of the Flood Plain Act. The approval committee under the said Act will take into consideration a number of factors (as stipulated in Section 7 below) when deciding to grant permission.

Section 7 of the Flood Plain Act states the following:

“7 (3) While granting a permission to construct in a flood plain, the committee shall, among other things consider the following matters:

  • the obstruction that the construction is likely to cause to the flow and its flood related impact;
  • the pressing need for such construction;
  • the safety of the construction and its impact on safety of other constructions or related areas; and
  • the opinion of the Canal Officer on the application for permission to construct in the flood plain.”

PEPA is the main governing legislation from an environmental perspective. The construction of the Project cannot commence without an EIA approval under Section 12 of PEPA. As per the Rio Summit, EIA has been termed as one of the most important aspects of any construction project. Every review of an EIA is carried out with public participation. Therefore, any environmental or ecological objections and concerns of the Society should be addressed through a public platform. The Environmental Protection Agency constituted under the Act is to be fair and non-arbitrary and conduct its workings in a non-discriminatory manner, free of any governmental pressure.

The Society should acknowledge that any statements with regard to structural river training and its associated costs are pure conjecture at the moment. Lahore’s future Master Plan aims to take the Project into account and support its execution, subject to laws, rules and regulations.

The Project and its executors should fully comply with the procedures laid down in the Flood Plain Act as mentioned above. The area to be acquired by the Authority for the purposes of implementing the Project has to be notified in accordance with the Flood Plain Act. Moreover, the committee’s approval will have to be obtained as per Section 7 of the same Act.

The Society appears to have taken an aggressive and polarized approach towards the matter and should aim to strike a balance. A similar approach had been adopted in the case of Lahore Development Authority v Ms Imrana Tiwana and Others (SCMR 2015 1739). The Society had argued that the exchequer’s funding of PKR 1.5 billion to remodel a signal-free corridor extending from Qurtuba Chowk to the end of Liberty Market in Lahore was excessive and that the high-speed expressway was only catering to the needs of the elite. Although the High Court was sympathetic towards the arguments of the petitioners and ruled in their favour, the Supreme Court overruled the decision and gave its verdict in favour of the Lahore Development Authority and allowed the project to continue in the interests of the public.

Conclusion

E.O. Wilson in his book The Creation writes,

“If there is any moral percept shared by people of all beliefs, it is that we owe ourselves and future generations a beautiful, rich and healthful environment.”

The reality of River Ravi is that it is currently a “sewage nullah”, as quoted by the Prime Minister. The benefits of implementing the project outweigh the environmental concerns being stressed upon by the Society. Any environmental damage apprehended at this point is pure conjecture. A proper EIA should be carried out before the execution of the Project and all matters pertaining to the environment and ecology of River Ravi and its surrounding topography should be addressed through the proper medium, as per the regulatory laws of our land. The Project is essential for the sustainable development of Punjab and will save River Ravi from further damage.


References

[1] The United Nations 2020 Agenda for Sustainable Development
[2] https://www.iscvt.org/FAQscdef.html

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which she might be associated.

Iman Ahsan

Author: Iman Ahsan

The writer is a Barrister working with CKR and ZIA Advocates and Consultants, Lahore. Prior to working in Pakistan, she has also worked in Qatar. Her main areas of practise are corporate, commercial and civil law.

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