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ISLAMABAD: Before the metro buses and the urban development projects, in the days that Islamabad was still a homely little town located along the foothills of the Margallas, growing one’s own food was considered quite commonplace among its residents.

It was not out of the ordinary for people living in the capital – be they in the upscale F-sectors or the government-allotted housing of the G-sectors – to have a vegetable patch at home.

But today, as food prices in the twin cities skyrocket beyond the reach of average consumers, the trend of subsistence farming to meet one’s own kitchen needs seems to have all but vanished.

Dr Zafar Altaf, a former chairman of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC), finds it strange that the residents of Islamabad are trying to swim against the tide of modernity.

“Today, home gardening, community gardening and organic gardening of food crops is promoted in developed nations at the government level, but we are still dependent on imported fruits and vegetables.”

His words ring true; most of the bananas available in the open market come from India, while the bulk of staple food items such as tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger and potatoes, are imported by the ton every year from neighbours such as India, China and Afghanistan.

“I don’t mean items that can’t be easily grown locally, such as melons. But most vegetables that the average Pakistani consumes on a daily basis can easily be grown in the climatic conditions of Islamabad,” he said.

Experts say home gardening is the answer to skyrocketing food prices

An official from the National Agriculture Research Centre (NARC) agrees with this view, adding that new varieties of vegetables have been produced which not only grow faster but require lesser inputs to grow.

“We have established a Kitchen Gardeners’ Club to encourage the general public in this direction,” he said, adding, “Food prices will definitely come down if we grow more at home – if we produce a surplus of bitter gourds, for example, the staff and people close to them will benefit. Incrementally, such methods can lead to reduced commercial demand, which will automatically bring prices down.”

Good old days

Up until the 1990s, it was very common to grow seasonal vegetables in one’s home. Those who have lived in the city for decades recalled that from the posh F-6, F-7 sectors to lower cadre government quarters in G-6 and G-7, everyone used to have at least two fruiting trees within the premises of their homes.

“Almost everybody used to grow seasonal and daily use vegetables such as garlic and chillies. Some even turned the small green space outside their homes into a vegetable patch,” Sajjad Bukhari, a retired government officer based in Islamabad, told Dawn.

The trend was not limited to homes and even inside government buildings, tubewell operators would to plant mulberry or citrus fruit trees, or garlic and onions within the confines of their land.

“I am from a small landowning family in Sargodha, so I have an interest in horticultural activities. I personally planted numerous vegetables in government offices with the help of the ground staff there,” said Malik Yousuf, a retired CDA tubewell operator. “We mostly grew mint and bitter gourd, which was shared amongst the staff. It saved us all a lot of money.”

Yousaf blames senior government officers for discouraging the plantation of vegetables and wanting flower beds in every nook and cranny of their office buildings.

“The trend is changing and officers want to show off by wasting money on new varieties of flowers,” he said, adding, “Many officers who come from a rural background look down on domestic gardening and say it is a village practice, and refer us to flower gardens in the west.”

The watershed moment came sometime during the early 2000s, when a variety of development projects were being launched in Islamabad and the city’s managers decided to plant non-fruiting trees in the capital.

“It was observed that fruit that fell from fruiting trees attracted flies and even created traffic problems when unruly children tried to collect fruit from trees planted on the roadside,” an official of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) said.

However, the CDA denied any flaw in their plan. CDA Member (Environment) Mustafain Kazmi said the authority offered free saplings to all residents at least twice a year, but most people did not want to plant fruiting trees in their houses.

“A vast majority have more means than 30-40 years ago, and they believe that lush green gardens with a variety of flowers are a status symbol. Nobody wants vegetables growing in their lawn anymore,” he said. Accusing new residents of the capital of shunning greenery, he said, “People have plastered over their backyards with concrete because it is easier than maintaining a garden.”

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2015

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