From Swat to Sindh

Published Jun 27, 2004 12:00am

What a pleasure it was on Friday to open up this newspaper and find that my good friend, the Chaudhry of Chakwal, had deviated from the subject that has so passionately obsessed him for nigh on three years.

Ayaz Amir, former member of the Punjab assembly, has taken up the cause of the environment and is pleading equally passionately for a host of knights in shining armour to ride to the rescue of, and preserve from despoliation, the chastity of a beautiful valley lying at the foothills of the Salt Range.

His cry is likely to be lost in the industrial wasteland and chances are that the Punjab government will go along. In April last year, at a simple but most impressive ceremony, Punjab Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi inaugurated a mega housing project in Murree which will not only involve the chopping down of over 400 trees but in all probability will pose great danger to those who dwell in the high-rise apartments intended to be built.

In 1998, when Punjab was under the chief ministership of Main Shahbaz Sharif, the old government-owned Cecil Hotel in Murree was privatized and auctioned by the privatisation commission. It was bought by a leading businessmen renowned here in Karachi for his mega building projects which inevitably infringe on building and development laws, rules and regulations. Certain of the buildings remain half-built and incomplete as this suits him business empire. View them with dismay! Five stand near the Teen Talwar roundabout, on the left as one passes it on the way up the Clifton Road.

The buyer intended to raze to the ground the ancient elegant Cecil and with it all the old trees of the area and build a housing scheme - a cluster of apartment blocks of ground plus three. Permission was denied by Shahbaz, who had been advised by local and foreign experts that Murree, prone as it is to landslides, could not bear such a vast project so potentially dangerous to life and limb. The forest department also played its part and refused to allow the destruction of 400 fine old mature trees.

Come the government of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and the builders with their connections swiftly managed to obtain permission to go ahead with their housing scheme - to blazes with the 400 trees (as Chaudhry Pervaiz himself remarked, so what if 400 are chopped down, more trees will grow) and let those who house themselves in the apartments take their chances.

Concerned citizens went to court and filed a writ petition in the Rawalpindi branch of the Lahore High Court which was admitted for regular hearing in July 2003. An application praying that the builders be restrained was dismissed by the judge on the grounds that irreparable loss was in favour of the builders rather than the public good.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a strange position to take. How can irreparable loss be caused to the greedy, the builders? Does greed deserve legal sympathy? Or is it that the yet to be built apartments have already been sold, and advances paid and banked? Will irreparable loss not be caused to 400 precious trees, or to the safety of future residents in apartments prone to be swept down the deforested and weakened hillsides?

All is on course as far as the builders are concerned. In May this year they advertised Phase 2 of their scheme, inviting more members of the general public to book and pay for apartments that pose a risk to their well being. An application was filed by the concerned citizens seeking once more to restrain the builders, and this time it was dismissed as being irrelevant and extraneous. The public spirited citizens are now filing an appeal in the Supreme Court.

Not far from Murree, in another valley, yet more trees are threatened. The NWFP provincial education department has sanctioned the construction of a long awaited college in the Kabal area of Swat, much welcomed by the people of the area. But on the chosen site stand 34 old Chinar trees which will have to be cut down. The Swat Environmental Protection Society is busy trying to persuade the authorities to move the construction to an alternative site which will not entail the murder of a large group of mature trees. Surely the authorities can manage this.

Trees are an endangered species. An entire forest area is about to be lost to the people, this time in Sindh, unless some authority acts swiftly. Land grabbing is very much in vogue these days. Our military rulers set a bad example when they take unto themselves large tracts of forested public land, as one hears they have done in Punjab, and when they occupy open spaces in our cities that are designated as parks or sports grounds for their citizens and declare them to be yet another phase of an army housing scheme. They send quite the wrong message to the far too numerous greedy elements in this country.

In the Nawabshah district of Sindh, in Deh Tali 3228 acres of land has been notified as the reserved area of the Pai forest. On June 4 this year, a telegram was sent to the president of Pakistan, the prime minister, the chief minister of Sindh, the IG Police and to nine concerned local officials by two range forest officers of Sindh and four foresters of Pai forest complaining about the illegal occupation of forest land by a local influential and the accomplices.

This illegal act, according to the foresters' telegram, has encouraged other neighbouring communities - Chandio, Rahu, Gudaro, Magsee, Bhamb and Rind - to "jump in" to 36 other compartments of the pai forest and mark the areas "by erecting brushwood lodhas (hedge fencing) around these compartments for the purpose of encroachment."

They plead: "We the empty-handed field staff of forest department are not able to control these intruders who are not allowing us to enter the encroached area. Pai forest is also a game reserve and if prompt action is not taken and legal ... help is not provided to stop the influential encroachers from damaging tree growth, ... the wildlife available in this game reserve would also suffer heavy mortalities resulting from possible disappearance/loss of habitat. It is requested to provide prompt legal help to save government property from colossal loss so that attempt at encroachment on government land could be foiled."

Related above are but four of perhaps four million attacks now launched against what is left of the environment of this ravaged country. Environmental laws, as with all other laws on our statute book, are disregarded with impunity, they play no role in the affairs of the republic. The desecration of our environment mirrors the desecration of this nation and of the ideals of the man who made it.

Postscript: We in Sindh are sorry to have lost our former chief secretary, Dr Mutawakkil Kazi, to whom I owe an apology. Misinformed, I wrote that he was one of the many medical doctors now holding positions of power. Wrong. Dr Kazi is a Ph.D in economics from Boston University, an enlightened man of moderation.



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