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ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Thursday issued notices to the cement factories considered responsible for the drying out of the historic pond at the sacred Hindu temples at Katas Raj.

A three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, also summoned details of litigation pending in different courts concerning the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) and also highlighted the need to conduct an audit of the funds spent on the rehabilitation of temples in different parts of the country.

The court also questioned the qualifications of the incumbent chairman of the board.

The bench had resumed hearing on a suo motu notice, taken on the basis of media reports that the Katas Raj pond was drying out due to massive groundwater depletion by nearby cement factories, which were sucking water through a number of drill bores.

Apex court calls for legislation to prevent depletion of groundwater; seeks audit of ETPB work at the temple

The court also pointed out that only the state could claim a right to natural resources and termed sub-soil water such a resource. The bench also emphasised the need for a law on the unabated wastage of aquifers.

During proceedings, PML-N parliamentarian Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani regretted that the Katas Raj complex has 16 employees, all of them Muslim.

The board hurriedly places idols in the temple when pilgrims come from India, but later removes them once the rituals have been completed, he said.

Additional Advocate General Punjab Asma Hamid informed the court that the water level at the pond had increased to 20ft now, adding that the provincial government had also banned the setting up of new cement factories on the area.

However, the court reminded her that the ban came in the wake of the court’s notice, and regretting how governments always take delayed action.

The bench was not happy with the permissions granted to cement factories to enhance production capacity from 5,000 tons per day to 50,000 tons. “Who is responsible for this and why did no one point this out when the lease agreements were revived,” the court asked.

The Mughal Emperor Babur, the chief justice recalled, had compared the area where Katas Raj was situated with the beautiful Kashmir valley in his memoirs.

Justice Umar Ata Bandial also highlighted how the area had great potential for attracting tourism and was a sanctuary for migratory birds.

At the last hearing, the Punjab government had conceded that the aquifer feeding the prehistoric pond in Chakwal was under severe stress, leading to drastically low water levels.

Katas Raj is considered the second-most sacred shrine in the Hindu religion, and its origins date back to 600AD. The temple complex is built around the pond, which Hindus believe was formed by the tears of Shiva as he wept uncontrollably over the loss of his wife, Sati.

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2017