(New York, April 11, 2023) – Pakistan authorities are forcibly evicting thousands of farmers near the city of Lahore for a massive infrastructure project, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should enforce environmental protections and reform colonial-era laws that grant the government broad powers to acquire land for private as well as public use.
The Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project was begun in August 2020 by then-Prime Minister Imran Khan, who claimed it would address Lahore’s many problems – pollution, sewage, water, housing, and employment – while reviving its “lost glory.” The 5 trillion Pakistani Rupi (PKR, at the time of writing US$7 billion) government project, covering more than 100,000 acres along the Ravi River in Punjab province, is among the largest infrastructure projects in Pakistan. Proposed plans would create the “world’s largest riverfront city,” with a population of 12 million.
“Punjab provincial authorities have harassed and threatened area farmers to deprive them of their homes and livelihoods,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to ensure that government projects minimize displacement and loss of income, but also minimize environmental harm and flooding risks.”
To advance the Ravi River project, the government has acted on behalf of private developers to acquire the necessary property, 85 percent of which is agricultural land occupied by nearly one million farmers, laborers, and business owners. Affected farmers who have challenged the legality of the land seizures have faced intimidation and criminal charges brought by the governmental Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA), provincial authorities, and project developers, even as these legal challenges remain pending in court.
Environmental groups have raised concerns that the project’s proposed changes to the flow of the Ravi River could significantly increase the risks of flooding. Pakistan’s Sindh province experienced catastrophic floods in mid-2022.
Between February 1 and March 1, 2023, Human Rights Watch spoke to 14 farmers who said they have been evicted or threatened with eviction in Lahore since August 2020, as well as 8 lawyers, environmental rights activists, and journalists.
Since 2020, the authorities have criminally charged more than 100 farmers with resisting or refusing to hand over land they occupied. Accounts by farmers along with corroborating photos and video show evidence of intimidation, harassment, and use of force to evict farmers. The exact number of people affected or forcibly evicted has been difficult to determine, including by groups representing farmers.
In January 2022, the Lahore High Court ruled that the Ravi River project was unconstitutional. The court said that it violated domestic laws concerning the forcible acquisition of land, the process for compensating those displaced, and the project’s environmental impact assessment. The following month, the Supreme Court partially overruled the Lahore High Court decision and allowed the government to continue development only on the land it had already acquired and for which it had paid compensation.
Farmers and activists have alleged that despite the Supreme Court ruling, the Development Authority has continued to seize land. In November 2022, they petitioned the High Court to have the Supreme Court’s decision enforced. The Development Authority has denied forcibly evicting farmers.
In October 2022, the Development Authority filed criminal cases against at least nine farmers, claiming that they resisted handing over lands and houses that the government legally acquired. The farmers have challenged this, saying that they had not consented to the acquisition and had received no compensation from the government.
One farmer told Human Rights Watch that his family had lived on the land for three generations and the government was not only forcibly evicting them but also refusing to pay adequate compensation. A 60-year-old farmer whose land had been seized said: “The government says they want to build a new city, but why do they need to destroy the city and lives that we already have to build a new city?”
In the Ravi River area, as in much of rural Pakistan, farming is central to economic survival for families and communities. When farm families are deprived of their livelihood, the consequences are often far-reaching. Without the ability to cultivate land and sell crops, farmers are commonly forced into jobs for which they lack skills and produce far less income, ultimately driving them into poverty. One farmer said: “The government is taking over fertile land that] provides food not only for the farmers but for the entire city of Lahore and replacing it with a concrete jungle that only benefits government officials, property developers, and rich people.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed several families whose land and livelihood was taken away, leaving the farmers and their families destitute and insecure. As Pakistan looks to develop new infrastructure, it needs to ensure that it protects its citizens’ rights to land and livelihood.
“Pakistani authorities urgently need to reform colonial-era land laws to ensure that its laws are equitable, transparent, and in line with Pakistan’s international obligations,” Gossman said. “The government has an obligation to compensate for loss of land and provide for the resettlement and rehabilitation of those displaced.”
For additional details and accounts, please see below.
Land Laws, International Rights Standards, and Environmental Issues
Land Acquisition Act 1894 and Forced Evictions
The British colonial government enacted the Land Acquisition Act 1894 to acquire land for “public purposes.” Under the colonial-era law, Pakistani authorities are empowered to acquire land not only for government projects but also for other entities, including public-private partnerships and private companies. The law gives the government almost exclusive power to decide what falls within that scope and to displace people to achieve those aims.
Under the act, once the government makes a determination that land is required for public purposes, the landowner has no choice but to transfer ownership of the land. Farmers may effectively only contest the adequacy of the compensation. The law does not compensate the loss of livelihood for those evicted, nor require the government to resettle and rehabilitate those displaced. The cash compensation offered is often inadequate and not in accordance with market rates, Human Rights Watch found.
Most of the farmers who spoke with Human Rights Watch who are resisting evictions said that they have not been paid adequate – or any – compensation. The government has said that it has paid 70 percent of the landowners and that landowners who have reservations will have an opportunity to assert their claims.
Pakistani rights groups have documented officials’ use of threats, excessive force, and intimidation in development projects carried out under the Land Acquisitions Act. In the Ravi River project, the courts have not ruled on individual claims of forcible eviction and instead issued rules on the process to be followed.
The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the rights to property and land. Article 23 provides, “every citizen shall have the right to acquire, hold and dispose of property in any part of Pakistan, subject to the Constitution and any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the public interest.” The Constitution also states, “no person shall be compulsorily deprived of his/her property save in accordance with law.” It says, “no property shall be compulsorily acquired or taken possession of save for a public purpose and save by the authority of law, which provides for compensation therefore and either fixes the amount of compensation or specifies the principles on, and the manner in which, compensation is to be determined and given.”
Despite these constitutional protections, the Land Acquisition Act itself does not provide a criterion for determining market-based compensation and serious concerns remain regarding the adequacy of the compensation paid.
The courts, which regularly review the processes and considerations behind executive actions, traditionally have been hesitant to review the adequacy and legitimacy of the public purpose justification made by state institutions.
In March 2022, Pakistan’s Supreme Court said:
The law of acquisition is confiscatory in nature and easily deprives an individual of their property and all rights attached to it. Hence, the colonial objective and understanding of the law continues as acquisition even today, for public purpose, is at the cost of an individual’s right to own property. In this context, there appears to be no effort on the part of the acquiring department to be fair in their application to determine compensation.
Shabbir, 37, a farmer with a few acres of land that have been earmarked for acquisition for RUDA, told Human Rights Watch: “In addition to us being evicted from our homes, from our lands, we are also being denied real compensation for our land. The government is using outdated land prices to set the compensation amount. My farm’s value is not only the land but also the price of the crops that grow on it and provide income to my family.”
Rahim, a 58-year-old farmer with land near the banks of River Ravi, which his family has lived on and cultivated for three generations, said: “The compensation is a joke. The price that the government puts on our lives and livelihoods is ridiculous. There is no mechanism to calculate market rate. They take over our lands which is in acres and will build high-rise buildings that they will sell on a rate/price per yard.”
Fahad Malik, a lawyer representing several of the farmers facing forcible eviction due to the project, said that the provisions in the act for land acquisition “have no place in a constitutional democracy”:
Landowners have little influence or say in determining the adequacy or impacts of the proposed “public purpose” for which the land is being acquired and can realistically only question the amount of compensation being received… Given international obligations and constitutional protections, there can be no forceful acquisition of land by the state against the guaranteed fundamental rights without justifying the public purpose.
Malik contends the Land Acquisition Act “meets none of these principles and requires a complete replacement.”
International Human Rights Standards on Forced Evictions
The Land Acquisition Act’s provisions permitting forced evictions and the absence of a framework for a remedy violate fundamental human rights under international law.
The former United Nations Commission on Human Rights defined “forced evictions” as “the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection.” The commission affirmed that forced evictions constitute a “gross violation of human rights.”
The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which provides authoritative interpretations of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Pakistan is party, states in its General Comment No. 26, “[f]orced evictions are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant.”
Governments should provide everyone with a reasonable degree of tenure security that guarantees legal protection against forced evictions. The Covenant imposes a duty on governments not to interfere with land users’ legitimate tenure rights, particularly by not evicting occupants from the land on which they depend for their livelihoods.
The authorities can only carry out evictions under legislation that meets human rights standards that fulfill the principles of reasonableness and proportionality between the government’s legitimate objective and the consequences for those evicted. The evictions must be the least restrictive measure to fulfill this legitimate purpose, and promoting the general welfare needs to outweigh the impact on those affected.
The UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing has characterized forced evictions as “gross violations of a range of internationally recognized human rights, including the human rights to adequate housing, food, water, health, education, work, security of the person, freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and freedom of movement.”
Under the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement, in addition to providing compensation, authorities need to ensure that evicted people or groups have “safe and secure” access to food, clean water and sanitation, basic housing, essential medical services, and education for children.
The nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has called the Ravi River project environmentally, ecologically, and financially unviable, citing the Lahore Conservation Society’s findings that the proposed changes to the river are ecologically unsustainable. Environmental experts say that building barrages and other dams on the river and replacing farmland with paved areas could lead to higher water levels upstream and possible flooding.
The Ravi Urban Development Authority has denied that the project is unsustainable, claiming that the project will increase “green cover” and include “eco ponds, wetlands, [and] wildlife sanctuaries.” The authority conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), but rights activists and lawyers have questioned the credibility of the EIA as it was carried out by a non-registered environmental consultant.
Pakistan has a history of poor quality environmental assessments for infrastructure projects, and in 2017 the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency began requiring EIA consultants to be registered. In a June 2021 opinion piece, prominent environmentalists, sociologists, and lawyers criticized the project, noting that despite their the assessment had described the project’s impact on ecological resources as “long-term and irreversible.”
The unchecked authority of the government to acquire agricultural land for urban development could have serious implications for Pakistan’s food security, Human Rights Watch said. Pakistan already faces food security problems that have been exacerbated by rising inflation and climate change. In the greater Lahore area, the percentage of land used for agriculture has dropped from 54 percent in 1972 to 35 percent in 2009. Credible updated figures are not available, but the percentage is likely to have fallen significantly further given the rapid urban development since 2009.
In a ruling on the acquisition of agriculture land for RUDA, the Lahore High Court said:
Only under dire circumstances can a piece of land which is under cultivation be acquired and in case it has to be done the statutory framework must provide for a proportionate area of land to be allocated and which may be brought under cultivation so that the balance of food security should not be disturbed…
Pakistan ranks 80 out of 113 countries on the global food security index and food safety score of 43.5 which is below average score of 60.4. This means simply that Pakistan has to take measures on an emergency basis to curtail the loss of agricultural and cultivated land in order to protect its food security paradigm.
Tahir, a farmer who grows vegetables and now faces possible eviction due to the RUDA project, expressed his concerns not only for the area’s farmers, but for the people around Lahore:
This area is Lahore’s food basket and provides for vegetables and other crops for the entire Lahore region. Now all of us will be evicted and there is no other place around Lahore where we can resume farming, because there is not enough fertile land available and also since compensation paid to us is measly. As a consequence, it won’t only be us who will struggle for food but most of Lahore since they will have to get fruits, vegetables, and crops from far off places and hence pay more for it.