Roedad Khan’s life has been one of service to his country.
A statesman who served in key government positions for over three decades, working closely with six Presidents and two Prime Ministers during his career, and a former teacher at Islamia College, he belongs to the generation of Pakistanis that witnessed the birth of the country in full consciousness. Aware of precisely what it meant to defeat an ancient Empire and secure a dream that had demanded untold sacrifice, he belongs to an era whose men and women gave themselves to building a nation, committed to securing its founder’s vision without relenting, despite decades of disappointment at the hands of inept leadership. For Roedad Khan, this dedication extended to after retiring from office, when he took up the cause of the preservation of the Margalla Hills National Park.
Roedad Khan has been fighting to protect the Margallas since the early 1980s, when he and some friends established the Margalla Hills Society (MHS), of which he is the President. On their trekking excursions in Islamabad’s exquisite emerald hills, they began to notice the presence of quarries at numerous valleys in the range where stone crushing was being carried out on an industrial scale. The hills were being reduced to rubble with explosives in Shahdrah, Dara Jangla, Siniarri, Kalinger, Sangjiani and near the Shah Allah Ditta village. “This,” Roedad sahib points out, “was after the Margallas had been officially declared a National Park. Yet, we were alarmed to discover, the people had been issued quarrying licenses; they were de-figuring, decimating and defiling the hills and their pristine beauty!”
|Remains of the Margalla Hills near Sangjiani|
What they saw galvanized them into action and a non-political, non-profit NGO, the MHS, was formed. They rallied civil society behind them and enlisted the support of the print and electronic media. Numerous meetings and demonstrations were organized. At first, government response was slow in coming. But things began to look up when caretaker Prime Minister Moeen Qureshi took over. He looked into the problem at their request, mobilizing CDA resources and law enforcement personnel, and had the stone crushing stopped in Kalinger. This was the beginning.
One morning, on his customary walk to Daman-e-Koh early in the morning, Roedad sahib met Mustafa Khar (the Minister for Water and Power at the time). He spoke to the Minister and told him about the destruction being carried out day and night at Shahdra; Khar asked how he could be of help, and Roedad sahib noted that the Ministry provided electricity which made it possible for the work to continue. Four hours after the encounter, Mustafa Khar called Roedad sahib and told him that he had given the CDA 24 hours to dismantle all activities and leave the valley “lock, stock and barrel.” The Minister then asked that Roedad sahib send in a member of the MHS after 58 hours had gone by to ensure the valley had indeed been vacated. And it had.
|Launch of the Save the Margalla Hills Campaign at Kuch Khaas|
Utilising this momentum, the MHS was able to have stone crushing stopped in Sinniari and near Shah Allah Ditta as well. But they were unable to get the same results for the tail end of the range, near Sangjiani, where the Fecto cement manufacturing plant had been given a quarrying license by President Zia-ul-Haq some years ago. The factory itself is located outside the National Park, but the stone crushing is being carried out within it. Roedad sahib and the MHS appealed against it in the High Court; so did the CDA. It resulted in an injunction in favor of Fecto. Today, in passing by the area close to the Nicholson Monument, evidence can be seen of what quarrying has done to the environment, the air being perpetually dusty with tiny particles of stone, and ever laden with an orange haze.
Despite this setback, the MHS had been successful in other areas. “During the course of our campaign, we antagonized some very powerful people and many influential persons turned against us, politicians, captains of industry etc.,” Roedad sahib says. “But ultimately we triumphed, and the credit goes to civil society. That’s when we realized its true potential and how important it was to get people to care and give their support. Once they are on your side, nothing can stop you. You can perform miracles, move mountains!”
The MHS’s next battle was a long drawn out one. It was brought to their attention that the ISI had been allotted the Dara Jangla valley by former president Zia-ul-Haq for establishing a residential colony and offices. Roedad sahib and his colleagues launched a campaign to have the decision rescinded. On being questioned by the highest office why the MHS was against the decision, Roedad sahib responded by explaining that the land in question formed part of a public National Park; if it could be given away in this manner, what was to stop other interested parties in demanding the same. Both sides dug their heels in. The matter was referred to the court at one point, but quickly dismissed and the MHS asked to settle it outside court. So, once again, they mobilized civil society and held countless demonstrations, protests and walks. It took 20 long years for things to finally fall in their favour; the ISI was accommodated in the armed forces sector and Dara Jangla, at last vacated, was opened to the public. It is where Trail 5 now lies, and every day, especially on weekends, countless hikers can be seen trekking the beautiful valley. Roedad sahib tells with pride of how wildlife has begun to come back to the valley, relating numerous sightings.
He thought matters rested there, but soon, news was received that the CDA, under the directive of then president General Musharraf, had been issued a directive for the construction of a tunnel through the Margalla Hills, a project spearheaded by business tycoon Malik Riaz. Roedad sahib recalls a TV debate he was invited to participate in where Riaz, the panelist in support of the tunnel, argued how the project would be beneficial to the citizens, and disclosed that he held the support of both the President and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. “Right there, on camera,” says Roedad sahib, “I said to him, ‘You cannot implement the project. Its fate lies in the hands of the people only, and that is the only deciding factor.’” As the matter was taken to the Supreme Court, and resistance to the project began building up, its initiators backed down. However, what is critical to note is that in the SC hearing, the CDA representative stated that they had no intention ”for the time being” of pursuing the project, a phrase which would have consequences.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced plans for the construction of a tunnel through the Margalla Hills in order to facilitate commuters in Haripur, Mansehra and Abbottabad. The project the MHS believed they had helped put to rest, had been resurrected. Civic response was not slow in coming. On September 25th, the Margalla Hills Society, in collaboration with Kuch Khaas and youlinmagazine.com, launched a campaign against the project, rallying civil society for the cause. The issue is currently in the hands of the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the people of Islamabad have been staunch in their support, forming committees to deal with various aspects of the campaign, organizing demonstrations, running an online petition, and enlisting the support of students in the city’s schools and colleges. Support has also been pouring in from other major cities, and Roedad sahib has been involved at the fundamental level. The day after his 90th birthday, he was addressing a rally that had gathered at Trail 3 for the campaign. He is positive about the outcome. “Our cause is just, and our people are motivated. And my experience is that when you have these two things, you can never lose.” Given that this isn’t the first time such a tunnel has been proposed, it is his understanding that the only way the threat will definitively subside is if the Supreme Court issues an injunction constituting a permanent restraint against any such activity in the Park. It is important to note that in the past, Roedad sahib had made an effort to have the Margallas declared a World Heritage Site which would have provided them with a protective mantle, but the motion lacked government support.
|Addressing the rally at Trail 3, Islamabad|
Protecting the Margallas from threats that manifest themselves from time to time is not all he has done for them. For the past 35 years, he and the MHS have organized biannual tree planting drives, once in spring and once during the monsoon season. Students from across the city are mobilized to participate and are provided with saplings they set about planting near the Faisal Mosque and close to Pir Sohawa at the top. As a direct consequence of these efforts, 20,000 pine trees that survived can be seen in the hills today, strong and sturdy. He also delivers talks at local schools to educate students about the importance of the Park, and the MHS organizes awareness walks in the Hills to introduce them to the flora and fauna. He feels strongly about the crucial role the younger generation has to play in protecting this natural heritage.
As a final note, when asked what he feels is the greatest threat to the Park’s survival, Roedad sahib replies without hesitation: “Apathy on the part of the people. We must be vigilant and we must realize the value of this great gift. The Margalla Hills are the lungs of Islamabad, there is no other word for it. If we, the people, do not believe in their sanctity and integrity, then we are in danger of losing them to the callous hands of developers. We are, and we must be, the guardians of the Margallas.”
(July 24, 2017)