MULTAN: A file photo of the felled mango trees. — Dawn
MULTAN: A file photo of the felled mango trees. — Dawn

MULTAN: As the entire country, especially Punjab, grapples with pollution and smog, signifying the importance of more green areas in and around the big cities, the monster of private housing schemes continues to devour agricultural land having orchards.

A few days back, pictures and videos of felled mango trees, some of them showing truckloads of logs, for developing a private housing scheme went viral on social media, drawing ire from those concerned for the environment. What’s more alarming is that the said housing scheme is being developed allegedly in violation of the rules and regulations.

Although the inspectors of environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) termed the proposed site for a housing society unsuitable, fearing that felling mango orchards and the destruction of agricultural land will destroy the ecosystem and damage the environment, the cutting down of the mango orchards could not be stopped even after the passage of more than a month.

The report was sent to the Environmental Protection Agency Punjab on Feb 12 by the deputy director development, Multan, according to which a team of inspectors, including Fiaz Hussain and Zafar Rehman, inspected the proposed site for the phase-II of a private housing scheme on Feb 11 in Mauza Bulail and Qasba Awal on the Shujabad Road.

It stated that according to the documents, one Muhammad Aslam Sindhu is ‘proponent of the project’ but no legal document/land ownership is available in his name. “Therefore, legal ownership of the land in the name of Muhammad Aslam Sindhu needs verification to proceed further.”

It further stated that it has been observed that the area shown by Muhammad Imran, the representative of the project, is located at Pul Bulail and Qasba Awal and passage/access (from the scheme) to the Shujabad Road was under a mango orchard, which has been cut down.

“The mango orchard on an area of about 12 acres has been cut down and wood logs were available at the site. A mango orchard on an area of about 150 acres is available at the site and the firm may cut the mango orchard also. The area is agricultural in nature and is fertile,” the report stated.

It added that the area where the scheme was going to be launched was a mango development project area and an agri fruit farm also existed there along some human settlements.

“The cutting of mango orchards and destruction of agricultural land is likely to destroy the local ecosystem and will serve socio-environmental damage at local and national level. In view of the above grounds, the current site is not suitable for development of housing society. However, the proponent may select an alternate site for the subject project,” the report concluded.

Not only the phase-II of the private housing scheme is being established after felling the mango trees but its first phase and extension at the Bosan Road is being developed and sold out after cutting thousands of mango and other trees.

Last year, a petition was filed with the Lahore High Court by one of the authorised dealers of the housing scheme in which Muhammad Ashraf requested that the master plan of the city 2008-2028 be revised as his application for the extension of the first phase of the scheme is pending before the Multan Development Authority (MDA), which was not deciding it due to lack of revision of the master plan to decide the zone of urban area, peri-urban area and green areas.

“So in this situation respondents are unable to grant the sanctioning of the project when the revision of the master plan is under process,” he stated.

The MDA, in its response, informed the court that the housing scheme had got the approval of a housing colony at 1,898 kanals and sold the plots after carrying out the development work over there and according to the MDA Master Plan 2008- 2028 (of the city), the adjoining area of the housing scheme is the agriculture zone but the administration of the scheme, without getting any approval from the MDA, started selling the plots on the land of agriculture zone against which the MDA took action and demolished the illegally constructed structures.

The land cleared for the housing scheme. — Dawn
The land cleared for the housing scheme. — Dawn

On Sept 4, the court, on the recommendation of the counsel for the MDA, which was endorsed by the petitioner’s counsel, referred the matter to the Multan commissioner with the direction to decide the matter related to the revision of the master plan strictly in accordance with law as expeditiously as possible while hearing the parties.

Although the court also directed the MDA and housing scheme to maintain the status quo but the latter restarted the development work and continued selling the plots until the videos and pictures of cutting down of mango orchards went viral on social media.

Meanwhile, the administration of the scheme also got preliminary planning permission (PPP) from the MDA for its Phase-II at the Shujabad Road and started cutting down the mango orchard at the proposed site despite the fact the PPP didn’t not allow it or even start of the development work until the final approval of the scheme.

Advocate Fahim Gill, a social activist, said that instead of challenging the court’s decision of status quo, the MDA remained silent and did not file a contempt petition despite the housing scheme administration’s restart of the development work and felling of trees.

“The order of status quo went in the favour of the housing scheme and the MDA should have challenged it as cutting of mango orchards in agriculture zone was a punishable act,” he stated.

Demanding a judicial inquiry into the massive cutting down of mango trees, Gill said the rapid annexation of thousands of acres of mango plantation in the district was underway since years and a renowned housing authority, functioning in metropolises across the country, had being established over an area of 18,000 acres and its major proposed area was acquired where mango orchards were standing.

MDA Director General Agha Ali Abbas said the MDA was responsible only to protect its zoning laws and not responsible for the cutting down of trees.

“The administration of the housing scheme tried to violate the zoning laws on the Bosan Road, which was stopped by the MDA; however after the court’s decision, the matter was sent to the commissioner and in case of any violations, the commissioner could take action against the housing scheme,” he said.

He said that he had constituted an inquiry to probe the matter of cutting down of mango orchard by the housing scheme for its Phase-II on Shujabad Road and action would be taken according to law.

“The housing scheme administration is not authorized to cut down the trees and start the development work over the PPP until the scheme is approved. The scheme will not be approved if the EPA will not issue an NOC; however, the MDA so far has not been informed by the EPA whether it has rejected the application of the housing scheme administration for NOC,” he said.

Multan is famous for its mangoes but one fears it won’t be long before it loses the title of one of the ‘Mango Cities’ of Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2021

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