ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Wednesday slapped a 20-day ban on all kinds of construction, including development projects and housing schemes, in the national park areas of Murree, Kotli Sattian and Kahuta.

The ban was imposed by a three-judge Supreme Court bench, headed by Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan, on a 2015 petition moved by Mohammad Asjad Abbasi, Mohammad Fiaz and Mohammad Imran, seeking the preservation of the picturesque hill resort.

The petition invited the attention of the Supreme Court to violations of its 2005 directions, issued in suo motu proceedings on the illegal occupation of 2,500 kanals of forest land by a land mafia that were felling trees, causing millions worth of losses to the provincial government.

The order, however, does not prohibit renovation of buildings or properties that do not fall inside lands earmarked as forests.

Under a Sept 15, 2009 notification issued under the Punjab Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Act 1974, the areas of Murree, Kotli Sattian and Kahuta were declared ‘national park area’, where the clearing or breaking up of any land for cultivation, mining or for any other purpose is prohibited.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court also took exception to the fact that the office of the chief conservator of forests (Rawalpindi zone) had been vacant for the past nine months, and ordered the government to fill the position as soon as possible.

Deputy Attorney General Sohail Mehmood, who represented the federal government, also supported the Supreme Court’s earlier judgement and argued that any development work in these areas will amount to a violation of the verdict.

Suo motu proceedings were initiated when the Punjab government decided to construct the New Murree Project in a forested area. If allowed to proceed, the project would have resulted in widespread deforestation, degraded rainfall catchments of the Simly and Rawal dams, caused the silting and pollution of water channels, adversely impacted wildlife and would have been detriment to the environment.

The Punjab government eventually decided not to proceed with the project and dissolved the New Murree Development Authority

The Supreme Court also ordered Advocate General Punjab Razzaq A. Mirza to submit a comprehensive report highlighting the exact area of the national part after calculating how much of it fell within forest lands.

In an earlier note, Justice Qazi Faez Isa had mentioned that the document furnished before the court disclosed that the official respondents – provincial government departments – had violated an earlier undertaking given to the court. He had also held that the chief executive officers of Commoners Sky Gardens (Pvt) Ltd and Commoners Development (Pvt) Ltd – who are said to be raising construction in the area – had also violated the court’s orders.

Justice Isa had also regretted that the evidence furnished by the relevant departments showed that the national park and forest areas had been cleared by bulldozers that were accompanied by men armed with automatic weapons.

In its June 16, 2015 order the Supreme Court had described the petition as a case of public importance, especially in view of climate change in the region.

It is in the interest of all citizens visiting and living in Murree to see it safe, pollution-free with a clean environment, ensure the existence of its hills, the survival of its natural beauty, the retention of forests and the preservation of animal life, the 2015 order had stated.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2017