Army requested 1m acres of state land in Punjab for corporate farming

Military proposes “immediate” release of 10,000 to 15,000 acres of irrigated land for a pilot project

By
Benazir Shah
An undated image of Lahore High Court.  — APP
An undated image of Lahore High Court.  — APP

Earlier this year, the Pakistan army requested the Punjab government for one million acres of state land in the Cholistan area for corporate agricultural farming, court documents reveal.

In an official letter written to the Punjab Board of Revenue, on February 8, by the Director General Strategic Projects of the Pakistan Army, the military offers to develop “waste barren lands” in Punjab through corporate agro farming.

The military cites high oil and food prices as a serious challenge to Pakistan’s economy and its agricultural sector, arguing that the army has experience “gained through development of waste barren lands, placed on military schedule in various parts of the country for the wards of Shuhada and War Wounded Persons.”

Providing a timeline for the project, the military proposes in the letter the “immediate” release of 10,000 to 15,000 acres of irrigated land for a pilot project, followed by 100,000 acres of land by March 1.

It then recommends the “identification and lease of one million acres [of state land] in the Cholistan Development Authority’s area of responsibility” by April.

The letter was submitted by Punjab’s advocate general office in the Lahore High Court (LHC) on Tuesday, where Justice Abid Hussain Chattha is hearing a case related to the matter.

It is important to mention that after the letter in February to the Board of Revenue, a month later, in March the Punjab government signed an agreement with the army to allot 45,267 acres of state land in the districts of Bhakkar, Khushab and Sahiwal for corporate agricultural farming on lease for 20 years.

Soon after the notification went public on March 17, lawyers, Fahad Malik and Ahmed Rafay Alam, representing the Public Interest Law Association of Pakistan, filed a petition in the Lahore High Court arguing that the grant of land by a caretaker government in Punjab was “unconstitutional and illegal”, as the scope of a caretaker government was limited to performing day-to-day functions.

The petition also added that out of the over 45,000 acres of state land being transferred, 23,027 is forest land. Punjab’s law prohibits clearing or breaking of the land for agriculture, the petition stated.

After hearing the petition, on March 31 the Lahore High Court stayed the transfer of the state land on lease to the Pakistan military.

Separately, in a press conference held on April 25, Major General Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry, the director general of the military’s media wing, the Inter-Services Public Relations, was asked about the corporate farming project. He replied that food security was a challenge for Pakistan.

“In developing and developed countries their governments have used the military, in some way or the other, to improve the agriculture sector,” he said, adding that what role the military can play in making lands more cultivable, was in the end the decision of the provincial and federal government.

Today in Court

In the Lahore High Court on Tuesday, the Punjab government through its counsel submitted the February letter, as well as the minutes of the provincial cabinet meeting held on February 28, last year.

The minutes state that the then chief minister Usman Buzdar had approved in principle the terms and conditions of corporate farming under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

However, the minutes add that the matter must be placed before the provincial cabinet for consideration, after legal vetting of the draft and terms and conditions by relevant government departments.

“No such minutes have been filed [before the LHC] which reflect that the [government departments] actually sat and looked at the terms and conditions,” Fahad Malik told Geo.tv, after the Court hearing. 

“Secondly, there is nothing that has been submitted on record that shows the process through which it was decided that the Pakistan army will be the entity to whom this land would be given.”

Malik added that during the proceedings, the judge also raised the question that if there were already specialized government departments, such as the agricultural department and the livestock department, why was there a need to give the responsibility of corporate farming to the military, which has a defined constitutional role.

“The Court further asked if it was within the jurisdiction of the Pakistan army to be doing corporate farming,” Malik said.

The case has been adjourned till May 23.