ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Monday granted much-needed relief to the Punjab government by suspending the Jan 25 Lahore High Court (LHC) order, which had declared several provisions of the Ravi Urban Development Authority (Ruda) Act 2020 as unconstitutional.
But at the same time, a two-judge Supreme Court consisting of Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan and Justice Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi also restrained the Ruda and other allied agencies from undertaking any work on the ground beyond lands that had already been acquired, possession taken and compensation paid.
Similarly, on the question of planning and approval of the project, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies have been restrained from proceeding any further and have been asked to furnish their reports before the Supreme Court. The parties, however, have been allowed to furnish additional documents to support their case.
“We are of the view that the issue raised before us needs our consideration and deeper probe on the legal and constitutional issues highlighted in the petition,” Justice Ahsan observed while dictating the order.
The Supreme Court directions came on a hurriedly-moved petition on behalf of the Punjab government, assailing the Jan 25 high court order, declaring the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project illegal.
The order contained damning observations; for example, it pointed out that the loan taken by Ruda did not comply with the provisions of the Local Authorities Loans Act 1914 and, therefore, the amount should be reimbursed to the Punjab government within two months of the high court judgement.
Last week, Prime Minister Imran Khan had recorded a video message at the project site after a detailed briefing. In the video, he regretted that the provincial government would have to approach the apex court since its legal team could not present its case before the high court in an effective manner.
The prime minister explained that the project was not about establishing housing societies, but rather creating a new, planned city on the model of Islamabad.
During Tuesday’s proceedings, the court agreed with a request by Advocate Mahmood Mirza, representing Amir Hassan – the original petitioner before the high court – to grant the provincial government “limited relief”.
In the hearing, the apex court deplored that the legal team was not well-versed with the case at hand, since it failed to answer several queries raised by the bench. The court reminded the advocate’s office that the high court order was not made on the basis of a single petition, rather a set of 18 petitions were laid before it.
Advocate General Punjab Ahmed Awais and Additional Advocate General Punjab Akhtar Javed argued the government’s case before the apex court.
The petitioners argued that the high court should not interfere in technical projects, adding that the provincial government was not a party to the case when it was taken up before the high court.
They told the court that authorities had already paid compensation for 95 per cent of the acquired land and said that none of the previous landowners had dragged them into litigation.
The petitioners also contended that the high court did not issue notices to the federal government and the attorney general. They added that the forest department had already issued a report stating that no forest land had been acquired and argued that the LHC judgement contained errors.
The petition contended that the high court had not appreciated the fact that it was the prerogative of the government to initiate the process of legislation for the public at large and to safeguard their interests, regretting that with one stroke of the pen, the high court had wrapped up a project amounting to approximately $20 billion.
Moreover, they argued, the high court also erred in law while declaring that under the Land Acquisition Act, the collector was not empowered for the acquisition of any agricultural and cultivable farmland, which offends the provisions of Article 9 and 14 of the Constitution.The petition also pleaded that the high court had not appreciated the fact that the powers vested in the Supreme Court in terms of Article 184 (3) of the Constitution while dealing with the matters of public importance were identical in any way to the powers which the LHC was required to exercise in terms of the Article 199 (4) of the Constitution. Hence, entertaining the constitutional petitions was a classic case of transgression of powers that actually don’t vest with the high court, the petition argued.
The high court had held there were certain procedural formalities, which the collector for Sheikhupura and Lahore were required to fulfill, hence there was an alleged violation on the part of the collectors. But the petition argued that no such illegality had been pointed out in the court order.