RAWALPINDI, Feb 17: Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is no stranger to dealing with big, tough security issues. But the one coming to him for a decision is a tricky one – it involves protecting the country’s heritage also.
No one can say what will weigh more with the chief, money or heritage, when the Rawalpindi Cantonment Board (RCB) presents him next week its plan to raze a century-old cinema and library standing on the expansive six acres of Shah Baloot Park on The Mall, and raise a commercial complex there to improve its financial health.
But, despite the hard, austere future staring the state and the nation, many would wish the heritage wins the vote of the chief of army staff.
Dawn has learnt that some security concerns and legal hitches came in the way of the RCB going ahead with its plans for the invaluable property it holds in the heart of the garrison city.
It was thought multi-storeyed commercial buildings rising at the heritage site could be a security threat to the nearby military establishments such as the army’s General Headquarters, the Military Hospital and the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology.
That, and the ubiquitous NOC (No Objection Certificate) that the RCB needed to convert the trust property into a commercial venture, is said to have brought in the COAS as the decision-maker.
If the army chief approves the RCB plan, routed through the Military Lands and Cantonments branch, the grand old structures of the Odeon Cinema and the Lansdowne Trust Library will be pulled down, and the magnificent tall trees in their grounds uprooted, for a 12-storey commercial complex, flats, a hotel and a shopping mall.
Though named after Lansdowne, the Trust was founded by two Sikh brothers, Sardar Kirpal Singh Rai Bahadur and Sardar Sujan Singh Rai Bahadur, on December 5, 1881, to provide educational and recreational facilities to the residents of the Rawalpindi cantonment.
Lord Henry Petty Fitzmaurice, Marquees of Lansdowne, was Viceroy and Governor General of India from 1884 to 1894.
The transferring deed between English officers and the Sikh brothers said: “We Sardar Kirpal Singh Rai Bahadur and Sardar Sujan Singh Rai Bahadur, having at our own cost built the building known as Lansdowne Institute at The Mall, on ground for the purpose by the Cantonment Committee Rawalpindi, have now the pleasure of formally transferring the said institute to the public on the condition that it be open to all persons, European and native alike, conditional on conformity to rules of management and payment of subscription. The institute will be used as a place of entertainment and instructions.”
Afterwards the building was used as cinema and library.
The Shah Baloot Park has also historical significance. The Sikh brothers used to throw parties for the English officers there.
Offices of the Rawalpindi and Chaklala cantonment boards are also housed in Lansdowne Trust building. The RCB is paying Rs100,000 annual rent to the Lansdowne Trust Library, now commonly known as Cantonment Library.
The cinema was closed down in 2008 on the directives of the then Station Commander, Brig Sajjad Azam, as the lessee was not giving the annual rent of the cinema. Since then the RCB has allowed only stamp vendors and typists to run their businesses on the premises of the cinema.
RCB Cantonment Executive Officer Rana Manzoor Ahmed Khan told Dawn that the RCB officials and Station Commander Brigadier Zaman Nasarullah Khan Niazi would give a presentation to the COAS next week on their plan to replace the old structures with commercial plazas.
“We have already done that for the Rawalpindi corps commander and the Quarter Master General but the final decision will be made by the COAS,” he said.
“The design concept of proposed complex revolves around five basic components including hotel, shopping mall, corporate offices, recreation areas like cineplex, health clubs, indoor games, swimming pools and residential apartments,” he explained.
Asked if the Trust can do that legally, considering its basic charter, the officer replied: “Yes. The Trust Act 1882 empowers the Lansdowne Trust to convert its property into a permanent, profitable venture so that it could fulfil its objectives faithfully.”
However, a former president of the Rawalpindi Bar Association did not agree with him.
Advocate Sajjid Bhatti said “the trust’s nature cannot be changed”, because “the trust was established to protect the property for education and entertainment purposes”.
Neither the nature of the Shah Baloot Park could be converted, he said, citing the judgment of the Supreme Court against the commercial use of Islamabad’s Fatima Jinnah Park.
Military Lands and Cantonments (ML&C) Regional Director Sheikh Shahid Bashir said that the RCB cannot execute its plan without the approval of military authorities. But he did not favour uprooting the park at the site. “It has a historical significance and we should try to preserve it,” he said.
Showbiz personalities also opposed the idea of converting the Odeon Cinema into a commercial plaza.
“The action would further shrink the already limited public entertainment space in the city,” said film and TV actor Sajjad Kishwar.
If private cinema houses like Arena and Cinepax can generate revenue so can the government by refurbishing the cinema houses it controls,” he said.
Though television was providing entertainment to the people, he said there was “a dire need to preserves and promote cinema”.
Actor Batin Farooqi noted that producers were not making films because there were not enough cinema houses in the country.
“Instead of patronising the industry, the government seems joining the race to pull down the existing cinema houses,” he said.