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THE fabled Katas Raj pond carries the little water that is dropped into it daily through a water bore drilled half a kilometre away.—Photo by writer
THE fabled Katas Raj pond carries the little water that is dropped into it daily through a water bore drilled half a kilometre away.—Photo by writer

IT is a hot day but the light breeze blowing through the Kahoon Valley of Salt Range makes it tolerable. A gardener is busy watering plants using water from a bore drilled a few yards away on the right side of a lawn. At the entrance to the lawn lies the fabled Katas Raj pond, once used to supply drinking water to nearby towns and irrigate the loquat orchards in its vicinity.

The pond, once believed to be fathomless, used to be on the verge of overflowing throughout the year. It now carries four to five feet of water, which is dropped into it daily through a water bore drilled half a kilometre away. The once crystal cerulean lake, revered and held sacred by the Hindu community, is now muddied and stinky.

“The natural water of this pond was sacred for us but now we cannot get ishnan (bath) in the pond as it is being filled by groundwater instead of water from its original source. The very purpose of our worship has been killed,” complains Shiv Partab Bajaj, who has been leading Indian pilgrims to Katas Raj for last thirty years.

The dismal situation of the Katas Raj pond led Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar to take action last November, but it is only one of the indications of the problems faced by the residents of Kahoon Valley. The condition of Tatral Kahoon, a village situated only two kilometres from the historic Katas Raj, is worse.

The residents here suffer a continuous shrill scream of boring machines operating in various parts of the village. Nearly every house here has bored into the ground for water, but most villagers either get the bores drilled further or dig up new wells to get access to potable water. “We had bored 120 feet deep into the ground. A couple of years ago, I got it dug another 30ft deep (so that it was 150ft deep), and now I have gotten it drilled up to 291ft deep, because the level of the water table has dropped at an alarming rate,” shares Jamil Hussain, a resident of the village.

Other residents share similar fears. They suffer health hazards, which they attribute to air pollution by the Bestway Cement Plant. “Every other person is suffering from chest diseases and allergic reactions,” Mohammad Yunus, another resident of the area, says as he looks up at the cement plant hovering over his village.

According to the Imperial Gazetteer of India 1883, the Salt Range “runs in two main ridges from east to west, now parallel, now converging, meeting in a confused mass of peaks east of Katas and opening out again. Between these ranges is a succession of fertile and picturesque valleys set in oval frames by the hills never more than five miles in width and closed in at either end”. Among all the valleys here, Sakesar, Kahoon and Jhangar stand apart due to their mesmerising beauty.

The region, dotted with historical sites, natural springs, lakes and plenty of wildlife, such as the rare Punjab urial, had the potential to be a haven for tourists at a point. However, it is fast becoming a wasteland, as the cement plants, installed in a rush during retired Gen Pervez Musharraf’s regime, are laying waste to nature at an alarming rate.

Former Chakwal MNA Tahir Iqbal, who was a federal minister for the environment when the cement plants were set up in the area, says his ministry had refused to issue a no-objection certificate but the plants were installed here anyway.

Former governor of Punjab retired Lt Gen Mohammad Safdar Malik wanted to spend the last years of his life in his village a few kilometres from Katas Raj, but was forced to settle in Rawalpindi because of the pollution caused by cement plants. “The chief justice is very keen on this issue. I hope the pollution and destruction being wrecked by these cement plants would be controlled.”

Stressing the need for a health survey among residents of the area, former MPA Mehwish Sultana, who hails from Choa Saidan Shah, says it is important to determine the extent to which these cement plants have affected the health of the people living here. “This should also be determined how many locals have been recruited by cement plants and how many facilities have been given by the cement plants to this area from where they are earning billions,” she says.

However, the general manager of Bestway Cement, Irshad Ali Ameer, insists that his plant has not been creating pollution. “We are converting our water usage to air-cooled system which would bring our dependence on groundwater to zero level while we would harvest rainwater as well,” he says.

Although the Supreme Court has given the cement factories six months to arrange for alternative water sources and bring the use of underground water to zero, the residents of the area want to know if that would also end the incidence of disease and health hazards. “Will our fertile land be returned to us? Will groundwater be revived and, most importantly, will the damage done to the natural beauty of our valley be repaired?” are among the questions they have as they set their eyes on the Supreme Court’s next move.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2018