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Law of the land

Land acquisition for development should not harm displaced people’s interests. Donors such as ADB insist this and seek improvement in laws

Law of the land
It is in very few cases that the locals are satisfied with the procedures being adopted for land acquisition or the compensations offered to them by the government. — Photos by Rahat Dar

Suhail Ahmed lives in the Ravi Road area, close to the Azadi Chowk, where mega development projects have recently been launched by the Punjab government. As roads have to be widened for the purpose, the government is acquiring land from the people residing or running business in the area.

The worst affected are the ones whose properties are situated right next to the existing main road. They have no option but to surrender their properties.

The government can acquire private properties under the Land Acquisition Act 1894, for projects of public interest against a compensation amount paid only to rightful owners.

Ahmed knows a large number of affectees who are not sure whether they will be paid any amount or not. The reason is simple: a major part of the area, from Texali Chowk to Azadi Chowk, has been declared as ‘kachi abadi’.

“The locals cannot produce the required documents such as ‘fard milkiyat’ (ownership proof issued by the patwari), though they are the rightful owners,” he says.

In cases where the people have registries (property documents), they are being offered Rs0.2 million a marla for residential properties and Rs0.48 million a marla for commercial properties. “This is not at all justified,” he insists.

Ahmed says that the commitments are verbal and no offer has been made in black and white, as the negotiations between the government representatives and the locals are still underway.

“A new Indian law asks the developers to pay up to four times the market price of rural land and up to twice the value of urban land in order to acquire it for public works or industrial use. Besides, there is a provision to fund relocation and resettlement of dislocated people.”

The situation is no different in other areas in and around Lahore where huge development projects have been completed, are underway or they are likely to be executed. It is in very few cases that the locals are satisfied with the procedures being adopted for land acquisition or the compensations offered to them by the government.

On the other hand, the government officials claim the compensation may be offered only to the rightful owners who have proofs of ownership and that there is no provision for encroachers and squatters.

They say the compensation they offer is based on the average price of transactions carried out in the concerned area over a particular period of time. The fact that people quote lower than the original prices on sale deeds also affects the calculations made under this formula.

Apart from the compensation formula, there are complaints that there is no timeframe for payment of compensation, no provision to compensate people for loss of business due to delay in completion of projects, no efforts to rehabilitate the displaced, no clarity on what defines public interest etc.

However, an encouraging development is that the Punjab government is working on amendments in the land acquisition law to make it what it calls a fairer and more people-friendly law.

A major push has come from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which has made funding of development projects conditional with marked improvement in land acquisition laws in the country.

Waqar A. Mian, President of Badami Bagh Auto Parts wholesale market, also raises objections against the existing compensation formula and land acquisition mechanism. He says that just as the Pakistanis love to compete with India on every count, they should follow the country in replacing the land acquisition law of the colonial times with a new one this year.

Under the Indian law, developers will have to offer four times the market price of the acquired land to the owners whereas here not even given one-fourth of the market price is given to displaced owners, he adds.

“We have received notices and requested to demolish the structures ourselves. We want to talk with the government authorities but nobody has the time for us,” he complains.

Those not satisfied with the compensation formula can approach the civil courts which take ages to decide cases.

Titled ‘The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013,’ this new law was notified in India on January 1, 2014. Though there are objections that it will increase the cost of development, the developers will have to pay up to four times the market price of rural land and up to twice the value of urban land in order to acquire it for public works or industrial use.

Besides, there is a provision in this law for funding for relocation and resettlement of dislocated people.

While India has done away with the colonial law, it is still there in Pakistan.

On the surface, the Land Acquisition Act 1894 seems straightforward but there’s a huge loophole that totally negates the public purpose and makes it impossible to protect the public interest — that land can be acquired by a private company for a supposedly public purpose, says Najma Sadeque, head of Green Economics Project, Shirkat Gah.

“In other words,” she says, “the government has unilateral powers to act as both judge and jury and decide to whom it can award or deny land.”

She terms the Act a cleverly-crafted feudal law to protect vested interests which, she says, was allowed to remain that way in order to uphold feudal and corporate interests.

“There is nothing democratic, representative or honest about it. In Pakistan, the land laws are undemocratic and anti-citizen,” she declares.

Sadeque also says the British colonisers of South Asia, with their “royal pretensions”, initially chartered the corporation (East India Company) to do their devious work and later chose to be more acceptable “civilisers” in South Asia by corrupting or creating elitist and interest groups to control and rule the masses on their behalf. Their legacy included the Land Acquisition Act of 1894.

The Lahore High Court (LHC) has also ruled in some cases of land acquisition recently. A double bench of the court has granted stay against the acquisition of agricultural land for the Garments’ City near Sheikhupura. It has asked the respondents to explain by February 3, 2014 as to how could this project be termed as one that was launched in public interest.

In another case, a single bench of the same court has stayed the demolition of the 83-year-old Lady Willington Hospital for the purpose of using its land for a development project. The concerned government departments have been asked to submit detailed replies by February 6, 2014.

Nadeem Ashraf, Senior Member, Board of Revenue (BoR), Punjab tells TNS the department is working on amendments and has sought the input of acquiring departments.

When asked to comment on the existing law, he says it was definitely based on wisdom and that’s why it has served the purpose for over 100 years. “There is always room for improvement and we are trying to ensure the same.”

Ashraf says a proposal in this regard has been made to determine a timeline for the completion of the whole process. The process begins with the issuance of a notice under Section 4 declaring that the government wants to acquire a specified land for public interest development, and ends with actual acquisition and payment of compensation to the owners.

“What happens is that the people have to wait endlessly and many of them suffer loss of business for indefinite periods. If they are paid well in time, they can relocate themselves immediately,” he says.

According to Ashraf, there is a realisation that the compensation should be rationalized, so the government is offering 15 percent extra amount under the head of compulsory acquisition for government projects and 25 percent extra for projects launched by companies. The assessed prices are as per average of recent transactions in the area and it happens many properties carry much higher price tags in the market.

Ashraf says the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is funding communication projects such as roads and highways which involve large-scale land acquisition. The ADB is concerned that a fair price should be given to people from whom these lands will be acquired. “We are in touch with the [said] bank and have already had three meetings with their consultants on the issue.”

He says the BoR has imposed a ban on the acquisition of land for the construction of cooperative housing societies. If someone wants to launch a housing project, he can buy land himself in the open market.

With the Punjab government embarking on a Rs700 billion housing project along the bank of the Ravi river, revising these laws becomes highly relevant and the need of the time. This housing project would consume around 70,000 acres of land most of which would be acquired from private owners.

Regarding this project, Nadeem Ashraf says the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) is considering a proposal to offer exemption plots to the people whose lands are being acquired. This way they would be able to retain ownership of a portion of the land they sell to the government and benefit from escalation in prices once the project is completed.

This is the formula that the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) uses to acquire lands for its projects, he concludes.

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