The district of Chakwal carved out of three adjoining districts (Jehlum, Attock, Pind Dadan Khan) in 1985, has many claims to fame. History is one of them. Its potential for tourism, both natural and religious, is another, while its mines and minerals set it apart from many other areas. Its recently realised potential to produce enough olives to reduce the national edible oil bill has given the district an added significance.
An area inhabited since the middle ages, it has Shri Katas Raj Temples — a 1000-year-old complex of temples revered and frequented by the Hindus and people like the former Indian Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani. Next to it lays the ruins of Malot Fort, another 12-century relic — dilapidated but still standing. Takhat-e- Babari, a stone-made stage built by the maker of the Mughal Dynasty Zaheer-ud-Din Babar to address his army at Kalar Kahar on his way to Dehli from Kabul also adorns the district. On his way, he also planted the garden Bagh-e-Safa, which is still there and green.
The potential for natural and religious tourism is also immense and untapped. Falling in the Potohar plateau, the district is more of a series of verdant hills, piedmont and loess plains and known for its calming and serene scenes. The nationally recognised Kalar Kahar Lake attracts people from far and wide. Neela Wahn Valley, a bowl-shaped vale with clear springs’ water and streams, adds to the district’s attraction. Around 14 small dams (read lakes) are spread across 6,524 square kilometres of the district, which not only add to its serenity but also welcomes thousands of migratory birds every year. This migrant flock adds to the list of local bird beauties — peacocks, grey partridge, black partridge, see-see partridge, quail, houbara bustard and common cranes — that fill the skies.
While the potential of olives in the district has enough promise to replace the entire edible oil import bill, it needs the right set of policies, proper human resources and a strong political will over a sustained period of time to accomplish this aspiration
Apart from its natural beauty, the district’s spiritual stream is only comparable to that of the city of saints — Multan. Shiva, one of the principal Hindu deities who lost his wife Sita in the area wept to create water streams and his tears turned the area into a salt range. After him, came a series of Islamic saints for the next thousand years and eight of which are buried in this scenic land, giving a strong spiritual dimension to the district.
The social profile of the district is not less daunting either. Manmohan Singh, former prime minister of India was born here, (in village Geh, which was then part of the Jehlum district but falls in Chakwal precinct now). Being an army recruiting catchment, it gave birth to ex-army chief and president, general Muhammad Yahya Khan. Former air chief Nur Khan also hailed from here. Brig Sultan Amir Tarar, who fathered the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s and earned the alias of Col Imam, was a Chakwal.
The only thing lacking in the area was agriculture because of its topography. For centuries, the cropping pattern that was practised was: wheat-fallow-wheat, groundnut-fallow-groundnut, some grams, lintel, maize and a bit of millet here and there. With 22-25 inches of annual rain, agriculture was clustered around lakes, small dams and six nullahs (streams) that snake thought the district. This natural loss was compensated when the federal and Punjab governments decided to turn the Potohar plateau into an olive and grapes valley in 2015.
The Barani Agriculture Research Institute (Bari), which falls within the district, was made in-charge. Punjab came up with Rs2.7 billion to plant two million trees on over 15,000 acres over the next five years. To supplement the effort, Punjab pushed its heavily subsidised High-Efficiency Irrigation Project to the area and helped install 600 (drip and sprinkle) systems, the second-highest number after Attock, at a subsidy of Rs450 million — the district’s first introduction to agri-technology.
The grapes initiative, however, proved to be a non-starter. It was exclusively conceived, financed and executed by the United States Agency of International Development (USAID). The agency lost steam within a year as President Donald Trump cut funds in 2016 and it went financially dry. “Apart from the funding problem, Punjab did not help it succeed either. It failed to work on value addition after the project took off and yielded initial results. As farmers realised USAID has pulled out and experienced official apathy and market failure, they started avoiding grapes by the end of 2016 or early 2017,” says an official of the Bari.
Only the olive part of the project is left alive that has so far planted 1.25m plants over 9,000 acres as the change in government in 2018 delayed all its commitments by a year. The project will now last till the end of the current year and be terminated much before achieving the stated goals. To the project’s good luck, the federal government has conceived another plan to plant 12,000 acres (out of a total of 75,000 acres nationally) of olive, covering the partial failure of the current project.
Ramzan Anser, the project in-charge of the olive project, thinks that the next federal initiative would be a success because the current provincial project has set the platform: “out of 86 varieties, it filtered 22 that perform in the local environment. They are approved, certified and have nurseries backup. One high-tech propagation plant, which can provide 250,000 plants a year, has been put up in the area and so are two extraction plants. Institutional involvement and cooperation are enlisted. Under the new project, 10 million trees will be planted and 10 million grafted with existing wild olive (known as Kau in vernacular). Since olive trees require seven years before they produce a yield, wild olive (around 70m of them already matured and producing olives because the Punjab plantation is still in infancy) is a better option for grafting, but only if post-grafting care is ensured.”
The district’s fifth claim to fame is its mines and minerals deposits. Different official and private studies have hinted at the presence of gold, copper, gemstones, argillaceous clay, antimony, limestone, dolomite, Bentonite clay, fireclay, marble, rock salt, coal, crude oil and natural gas, brine and silica sand. With the exception of gold, copper and gemstones, all other minerals are being mined. For these three, the studies thought their quantity is too low to merit heavy investment in exploration and extraction.
The list of mines, prepared by the provincial government, include 246 coal mines, 64 limestone mines, 11 marble and 11 salt mines. In total, there are some 388 mines that drive the district’s economy and generate employment. But since all these operations are low-tech exercises, they have not been able to contribute to the district’s economy as much as they could have.
The rich hilly prairies and grazing lands of Chakwal provide an ideal setting for livestock raising and the people have been benefitting from them for centuries. It is because of this setting, the district now has 337,227 large and 498,630 small animals. This is in addition to the 383,022 poultry population. The district developed eight exotic dairy farms, 130 poultry farms, eight feed-lot fattening units and four hatcheries as well.
The district also earned notoriety when the government started allowing cement factories (four of them already there) in the district and they started hitting the aquifer. Even squeezing the water supply for the pond of Shri Katas Raj temples, which, according to Hindu mythology, were Shiva’s tears, which taxed religious sentiments. The local population also joined the anti-cement factories discourse, registering severe health issues due to the polluted environment and soil. These issues activated courts in the country that banned water extraction and ordered the safety of the environment for people. All these events kept the district in the national press for the wrong reasons.
As the final word, one can say that 1.6 million acres of the district, with 50pc of them still fallow, have enough promise to delete the entire edible oil import bill. What it needs is the right set of policies, proper human resource and political will over a sustained period of time. The earlier it is done, the better it would be. While the first provincial project did not achieve the desired results, one hopes the next one does.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, , March 15th, 2021