The older citizens of Islamabad remember a pollution-free capital, where there was little traffic and parking was not a problem. It was a time when Shakarparian was still covered with a thick forest, and almost 1 km had not been cleared for industrial exhibition, later converted into a parade ground. Bani Gala was part of the Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) and the catchment area for the Rawal Lake, and the elite had yet to make a land grab there. Through CDA’s negligence (although Chairman CDA Fariduddin Ahmed tried to save Bani Gala in the ‘90s, to his great cost), huge chunks of the green lungs of the city have been lost to mindless deforestation and construction. Consequently, the temperature of the city has gone up a few degrees.
With the election of Sheikh Ansar Aziz as the mayor of Islamabad in early 2016, and his additional charge as Chairman CDA quite recently, for the first time the environmental concerns of Islamabad’s citizens are being addressed. His point man on environment is a dynamic young bureaucrat who has been brought in from the Punjab. Suleyman Khan Warraich has been made Member Environment, CDA, and the CEO of the Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation. He is making his presence felt in the stagnant and corrupt local administration of the city, and is responsive to the civil society’s suggestions for the improvement of the city’s environment.
Green Force, a group of environmentalists, had been lobbying for years for making Islamabad into a pedestrian and bicycle friendly city, but without any success. With the advent of the new Mayor, things are beginning to change. On 12th November, a new bicycle lane was launched starting from the D-Chowk, opposite the Presidency, to the roundabout near Serena where the Constitution Avenue begins: a short distance, but an important beginning towards a network of bicycle lanes that the Green Force and the Islamabad cyclists’ organization, Critical Mass Islamabad (CMI), have been lobbying for. Ironically, bicycles were not allowed in the F-9 Park which covers 750 acres of land. Led by Warraich and assisted by members of the Green Force, plans are afoot for a new bicycle track in the F-9 Park.
According to a World Bank report of 2015, Islamabad was the fastest growing city of Pakistan: its population had increased by 73% over the last 10 years, and was projected to grow by 66% over the next fifteen years. One reason for this growth is the influx of people from the KPK province because of the unsettled conditions there. To deal with the challenges that Islamabad faces, one must reckon with the fact that its twin city Rawalpindi has a population of 3 million, many of whom commute to Islamabad, and flood the city on weekends and holidays.
Lately Islamabad has begun to be covered by a haze caused by pollution during the winter months. The Islamabad Municipal Corporation must focus on preserving the city’s environment by providing a network of mass transit that would cover the city, making it bicycle and pedestrian friendly. It was a pleasure to see the Mayor and his team on bikes followed by scores of men, women and children. Sheikh Ansar announced that Islamabad was the first city in Pakistan that has signed the Green Charter to adopt the UN Urban Environmental Accords. The challenge is whether we can move beyond symbolism, and transform Islamabad into an environmentally model city of Pakistan, where people move around in trams, and the pedestrians and cyclists rule the roost.
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