If Pakistan can ever develop its potential for religious tourism and attract global pilgrims to its archaeological holy sites, the district of Rawalpindi will certainly lead the initiative. Dating back to the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, it was once the learning capital of Buddhism. A series of Buddhist sacred sites (monastic, stupas and universities) are scattered across the district. From Alexander the Great to the Mughals to Baba Guru Nanak, everyone has contributed to the revered heritage of the area.

The area, falling on the invading route to the subcontinent, has given birth to new cities through the millennia. If Bhir mound, dating back to the 6th century BC, is considered the earliest urban dwelling in the subcontinent, Islamabad is the latest addition. In the 1960s, Rawalpindi donated 906 square kilometres (out of its 6,192 square kilometres) to create the new capital for Pakistan.

But its habit of delivering cities turned nasty when instead it started giving birth to hundreds of small housing schemes and ruined its verdant surroundings. Currently, all those greens belts around it are disappearing at a speed that is ‘fast and furious.’ A recent advertisement campaign by the Rawalpindi Development Authority (RDA) shares the story of how these legal and illegal projects have played havoc on the district’s ecology and agriculture.

In Rawalpindi, legal societies number 55 against 223 illegal ones. The RDA says there are five legal schemes in Taxila compared to 29 illegal ones whereas in Murree that ratio is four legal schemes to 58 illegal projects. Gujjar Khan has nine, all illegal and Kotli Sattian has three.

According to the RDA records, approved/sanctioned schemes are spread over 18,384 acres (147,079 kanals). Tariq Mehmood Murray, chairman of the RDA, thinks that once the master plan of the district is ready, the situation will come under control. However, his organisation does not have authentic data on the extent of area illegal schemes now occupy. “They do not come to us. The purchase is mostly kept secret till the final moment. But yes, huge tracks of land are changing hands.”

“One can take a cue from advertisements and develop a ratio between legal and illegal schemes and their possession of the land. If 64 legal schemes are spread over 18,384 acres, one can imagine how much land 322 illegal societies must have,” says an employee of the RDA. In fact, the situation has worsened since the advertisements appeared. It is now an emergency situation; all departments concerned — agriculture, RDA, revenue, crop reporting, water management — are meeting regularly to review the situation, which is worsening by the month, and report to the high ups.

Ashiq Hussain of the Crop Reporting Service calculates the agriculture cost of these societies, saying that “in the last 15 years, particularly the last five year, the housing societies have gobbled up 30 to 35 per cent cropping area in four — Rawalpindi, Taxila, Murree and to some extent Gujjar Khan — of the seven tehsils of the district.”

All surrounding union councils have disappeared or vanishing fast: “If we used to collect samples (for crop reporting purposes) within, say, 2km of our office ten years ago, now we have to travel at least 10km — the eight intervening kilometres are now occupied by undeveloped, underdeveloped or even barren housing schemes. These schemes may take three to four decades to be partially or fully inhabited, but the land now lays waste for cropping, residential or industrial usage, he regrets.

Agriculture in the Rawalpindi district has always had issues. Being part of the barani belt, water is a limiting factor. However, 1,346mm (or 53 inches) of average rain, which is not restricted to monsoon but also includes healthy winter showers, compensates the area to some extent and makes the growing of many crops possible.

Wheat tops the list: it occupied 374,000 acres last year, out of a total cropped area of 540,579 acres. Maize is next with 113,000 acres and groundnuts cover 24,400 acres. These three crops almost complete the agricultural picture of the district. Wheat with an average yield of 16.48 maunds, maize at 13.98 maunds and groundnuts at 10.58 maunds only show how grossly underutilised these lands remain.

The potential, however, is much larger: out of 1.2 million acres, 728,692 acres remains uncultivated because of two factors — water and land consolidation. The solution to the first problem was found in countless tiny dams, water bodies and ponds that harvest rainwater and later irrigate lands.

But their command areas could not be developed due to small landholdings; dozens of people own land in small pieces (even in kanals) on the slopes of small hills and narrow walkways. Since small lands do not make sense for a large investment, they are sitting ducks for housing schemes. “Instead of getting a yield of 14 maunds of maize (against 100 maunds in the Punjab plains), why not sell it? A small lake in the middle only makes it more attractive for housing colonies and fetches a better price,” says Muhammad Bilal, who recently sold his land in the Rawalpindi area.

Sajjid Haider, the local chief of the agriculture department, lists a third limiting factor: lack of specialised machines for the Pothohar Plateau. “Many machines that work in plains lose utility when it comes to uneven land here. We need to look at this aspect as well. Apart from these factors, the potential of the area is huge. Soil fertility is high. Weather and rain variation gives the option of crop rotation and the topography and weather are very conducive for high-value crops. Efforts should also be made to consolidate lands so that the yield is higher and it attracts investment.”

It was because of this ability that the Punjab Government selected the area for experimenting with the Olive and Grapes Initiative in 2016. Grapes were dropped soon but olives remain partially successful, with a 12pc share of total plantation (138,931 trees out of 1.2m) growing in the Rawalpindi district. However, these trees were mostly planted on the already cropped areas and not on uncultivated acres, thus further reducing cropping area.

The federal government has conceived another programme for olive plantations and the Rawalpindi district remains a part of it as well. Hopefully, the trees will be grown over 60pc of the district that is not regularly cropped, and therefore not reduce usable acres further.

Since Rawalpindi is on the main route connecting the subcontinent to China, Afghanistan and Central Asia, it has grown from a small trading town to an industrial powerhouse. From heavy engineering to chipboard to chemicals to cement, the district is strewn with all kinds of industry —74 flour mills, nine textile units, 14 pharmaceutical units, seven industrial burn gases and eight food factories give the district its impressive industrial profile. Its flour mills feed people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the entire north region, right up to Khunjrab pass.

Situated on the southern slopes of the north-western extremities of the Himalayas, its grassy hills and vast prairies help it raise livestock less expensively and keep backyard poultry almost free. That is why, as per the livestock department data, it has 131,212 buffalos, 252,298 cattle, 24,287 sheep, 218,847 goats and 468,369 backyard poultry.

The district with mild weather and 1.2m acres falling in a healthy rainfall region offer many unique opportunities. Vegetables, high-value crops, barley, maize, fruits etc are possibilities with the right kind of policies. It may take few years for the government to develop those plans, and another few to execute them even if it decides today.

However, the current issue, which is fast assuming disastrous proportions is housing societies bulldozing the land flat and occupying them for a propitious future point. This erosion needs to planned if not stopped altogether. After small water bodies, the spread is now engulfing bigger dams like Chahan and destroying investment and lands alike. It needs to be stopped before it is too late. The tipping point, as the local agriculturists put it, is only years away.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 12th, 2021

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