The Balochistan High Court (BHC), in a landmark judgment, has declared that the ‘unsettled land’ of Pakistan’s largest province belongs to the indigenous tribes and not the provincial government.
Despite its low population, the Balochistan province is the biggest federating unit of Pakistan in terms of its size, making up for 43 percent of the country’s total area. 90 percent of the total area of Balochistan is unsettled and undocumented land, according to The Express Tribune.
The petitioners and members of the indigenous tribes had claimed ownership of these lands and had requested the court to determine the status of the unsettled lands of the province. However, the Balochistan government had denied their claim and argued that the unsettled land belonged to the provincial government.
After hearing arguments, BHC Chief Justice Jamal Khan Madokhail on Wednesday issued a judgment, noting that the ownership is in favor of the landowners concerned. He also noted that the government should conduct settlement proceedings to prepare records and to continue settlement proceedings periodically, in accordance with the law.
“The government can frame policies, introduce land reforms and make enactments to deal with land issues, accordingly. This judgment shall have no effect upon past and closed transactions,” the court said.
The court also said that the Pakistani administration was maintaining the revenue record in the same manner as in the British era, reported The Express Tribune.
“It was the responsibility of the provincial government to conduct settlement proceedings periodically, as provided by the LRA, 1967 and the Settlement Manual, but the needful has not been done… Resultantly, almost 90 percent of the lands of the province are still unsettled,” Madokhail said.
The court also said that by not conducting settlement in the area, landowners concerned will naturally have no documentary proof of their ownership, for which they cannot be held responsible nor can they be deprived of their rights.
In absence of a record of right, longstanding possession and control of the tribes or sub-tribes over the undocumented unsettled lands give a good legitimate title to them against the government, BHC noted, The Express Tribune reported.
“In presence of claimants, the unsettled lands cannot be considered as ownerless property, therefore, the landowners concerned who prove their entitlements are deemed to be the rightful owners and being a citizen of the country, their rights have been protected by Article 23 and 24 of the Constitution,” said the court.
“Since most of the unsettled lands are being claimed by the landowners concerned, therefore, having rightful owners, these cannot be considered as ownerless properties; rather the inhabitants of different tribes and sub-tribes are presumed to be owners of their respective land,” it said while noting the underdevelopment in Balochistan.
Advocate Umer Gilani lauded the judgment, calling it ‘commendable and rights-protective’ which has implications for a very large part of Pakistan.
“This is a very significant and progressive interpretation of Article 172. It is a commendable, rights-protective judgment that has implications for a very large part of Pakistan since Balochistan is almost half of Pakistan’s landmass and most parts of Balochistan are ‘unsettled’ in terms of revenue records,” he told The Express Tribune.
Gilani said the issue of “rights of indigenous peoples” is also of international significance.