ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Thursday suspended cane-crushing at three sugar mills in Rahim Yar Khan — otherwise known as the cotton belt of southern Punjab — until a Lahore High Court decision on pending litigation concerning the mills.
The mills — Ittefaq Sugar Mills Ltd, Haseeb Waqas Sugar Mills Ltd and Chaudhry Sugar Mills Ltd — are owned by the ruling Sharif family.
“We are suspending the crushing until the high court decides the matter,” Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar observed while deciding a petition moved by JDW Sugar Mills Ltd. Located in Sadiqabad tehsil of Rahim Yar Khan district, it is believed the mill is owned by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Secretary General Jahangir Tareen.
The petitioner had challenged an Oct 24, 2016 order by an LHC division bench, which suspended an Oct 10, 2016 decision by LHC Justice Ayesha Malik by issuing ‘status quo’ against the restriction on shifting five sugar mills, owned by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and their relatives.
Judge describes Punjab CM’s amendment allowing mills’ relocation as ‘conflict of interest’
This fact was also pointed out by Aitzaz Ahsan, who appeared on behalf of JDW Sugar Mills.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court set aside the LHC division bench’s order — declaring it a non-speaking order issued in a mechanical manner — because the high court did not take into consideration a number of documents and restraining orders issued from time to time against the relocation of these mills.
On account of the urgency of the matter, the chief justice ordered that a division bench of the high court, preferably headed by LHC Chief Justice Mansoor Ali Khan, should take up the pending matter on Feb 16.
The court turned down a request from Advocate Salman Akram Raja, who represents Ittefaq Sugar Mills, that the LHC division bench should not be headed by the chief justice, since he was party to several restraining orders issued by the high court in the past.
The counsel also asked that the mills be allowed to continue crushing until March, otherwise around 800 employees would be rendered jobless. He claimed that stopping crushing now would ‘waste’ Rs380 million worth of investments in the Ittefaq Mills, as well leading to the closure of the power plant being installed at the mills.
He recalled that the Chief Minister’s Committee, in 2015, had already amended the 2006 notification by allowing the relocation of the mills to different areas.
But the court observed that the amendment seemed to be meant for the benefit of the ruling family.
Justice Umar Atta Bandial also regretted that the chief executive of the province made the amendment, which seemed to be directly or indirectly benefiting his own family — a development that constituted ‘conflict of interest’.
Mr Ahsan argued that sugar mills were relocated on the pretext of setting up power plants, but on Oct 24 an LHC division bench allowed the relocation of new sugar mills in the province, contrary to the long-standing ban, through a notification on Dec 6, 2006, which was also upheld by the Supreme Court as being in the public and national interest.
By permitting the operation of a sugar mill in the prime cotton-growing area of southern Punjab, the high court has aggravated what can only be referred to as an emergency prevailing in the agricultural sector, i.e. diminishing cotton yields which have a knock-on effect throughout the wider economy, coupled with excessive sugarcane production, he maintained.
The relocation has opened up the floodgates, which was evident in the various stay orders granted by the division bench to other sugar mills seeking to fortify their illegal relocations in the southern Punjab, the counsel argued.
Mr Ahsan argued that the Oct 24 order of the division bench was “self-contradictory”, as it seemingly allowed the sugar mills to carry out business at the relocated premises.
The division bench had inadvertently and irregularly vacated interim injunctions granted in proceedings pending before a single judge of the high court.
The division bench also neglected to consider that these relocated sugar mills were set up without the mandatory permission required under the relevant law, the counsel argued.