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Earthly matters: Capital’s greenery under threat

Earthly matters: Capital’s greenery under threat

Driving through the dense greenery of Shakarparian Park near Zero Point in Islamabad, one is reminded of old Islamabad – when the forest cover was so thick that the tree branches would arch over the then narrow roads, providing both shade and refuge for wildlife. Today the heavily forested area of Shakarparian consists of a hill, on top of which is located the picturesque Pakistan Monument and the park area is a popular tourist spot on weekends and holidays.

Unfortunately, this green space, a poignant reminder of ‘old Islamabad’, is now under threat. It has been in the news lately that the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is planning to re-initiate an abandoned project to build an international standard cricket stadium in the Shakarparian area. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) has allotted 34 acres of land in Shakarparian to the PCB to build a cricket stadium for 50,000 people. The plan also includes a five-star hotel, a training academy, etc.

The Green Force, comprising a small group of volunteers working to protect Islamabad’s greenery from further destruction, is aghast at the proposed project. “Shakarparian, Bani Gala and the Margalla Hills were all part of the Margalla Hills National Park and formed the lungs of the capital city. Bani Gala, the catchment area for the Rawal Lake, has already been lost and its legal status changed leading to the pollution of Rawal Lake, which feeds the citizens of Rawalpindi. Shakarparian and the Margalla Hills National Park are now under attack by developers and the shortsighted policies of the CDA,” explains Dushka Saiyid, one of the founding members of the Green Force.

Already, the Margalla Hills National Park has narrowly escaped environmental degradation when the Supreme Court threw out the proposed Margalla Hills tunnel project. Shakarparian is really the only other forested chunk of Islamabad that is still intact, in a city that is increasingly becoming polluted by emissions from factories and vehicles. Islamabad’s air quality is still better than Karachi or Lahore’s but it is also a rapidly growing city and why would anyone want to see the capital city go the way of Lahore, which has been utterly ruined in the name of ‘development’? Lahore’s groundwater is currently being depleted at an alarming rate thanks to all the cutting of trees and concretisation. Water experts from reputable organisations like the International Water Management Institute say that after Quetta, Lahore will be facing massive water shortages very soon.

Much of Islamabad’s greenery has already been cut down to expand the highways and during the construction of the metro project (in addition to the building of 7th and 9th avenues). All this rapid deforestation of Islamabad has raised the temperature of the city by a few degrees. One can’t do much about the destruction that has already taken place but it really is unacceptable to give the go-ahead to such an extravagant project in an area that is actually protected by the Islamabad Wildlife (Protection, Conservation and Management) Ordinance of 1979.

Besides, cricket stadiums can be built anywhere — why not find some already degraded land owned by the CDA and build there instead? Why cut hundreds of old trees to build a new stadium when the city’s sports centre located nearby, is hardly used? To make matters worse, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has recently approved the feasibility report of an Islamabad-Muzaffarabad railway track, whose railway station will be set up near the Rose and Jasmine Garden in Shakarparian.

Again, why does the railway station and track have to be built in such a beautiful green spot of Shakarparian? Sources say the prime minister has ordered that a plan to initiate this project be started as soon as possible, especially regarding measures for purchasing the land and the laying of a railway track. On the one hand the prime minister has approved the recent launching of the Green Pakistan Programme whereby over 100 million trees are to be planted in the country and on the other hand he is approving the cutting of thousands of trees to build a railway station — it just does not make any sense.

Alarmed at all these proposed activities in Shakarparian, the Green Force organised a press conference last week to inform the media and public at large. The main spokesman was Ehsan Mani, the former head of the International Cricket Council who also happens to be an environmentalist. He told journalists gathered at the National Press Club in the capital that if executed, the project would cause irrevocable environmental damage to the federal capital. He noted that the building of a cricket stadium and a railway station in Shakarparian would require the felling of thousands of trees. As an environmentalist and a citizen, he is, of course, opposed to the idea of building a stadium and a railway station at the proposed site.

According to Dushka Saiyid, “Just 6km from Shakarparian, in Shamsabad, there is an international level cricket stadium, which can be further upgraded. If the intention of PCB is to promote cricket nationally, this project of Rs2 billion could be used to promote regional cricket stadiums and found training academies.” The PCB has now applied for a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to execute the project. According to an insider at the PCB who does not wish to be named, it is actually a PML-N senator “in cahoots with the local regional cricket association” who is pressing the prime minister to give him permission for the project and not the PCB itself which had initially dropped the idea of the proposed cricket stadium.

The Green Force is calling upon the federal climate change ministry and the EPA not to grant an NOC to this “outrageous project as it will have a retrograde effect on the ecosystem of Islamabad and turn Islamabad into a concrete jungle”. As Dushka Saiyid points out: “Can anyone imagine the British making a cricket stadium or a railway station in either the Hyde or Regent’s Park? We appeal to everyone to help us protect the environment of Islamabad and retain its green identity.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 20th, 2016

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