ISLAMABAD: Who owns the Margalla Hills or Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP), which has been in the news for quite some time in one context or the other?
The MHNP was once again in the spotlight when Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah ordered the demolition of a famous eatery and naval golf course. The MHNP had come into the limelight when the establishment of a cement factory in the foothills of the Margallas in village Sangjani was opposed by environmental activists. However, it transpired that Gen Ziaul Haq had overruled the then chairman of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) Brig (retd) Jan Nadir and ordered the establishment of the cement plant in the environmental zone of the federal capital. The order had stood protected under the eighth amendment.
Though later the Supreme Court and Islamabad High Court (IHC) declared the environmentally degrading factory illegal and its licence and quarrying permit were canceled/withdrawn, the factory has continued its operations.
The Margalla forest and the MHNP were again in the news when a few years back the Supreme Court tasked the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to demarcate the MHNP and identify encroachments within it.
A few years ago, the Margalla forest and MHNP had got on to the radar of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), when the watchdog had started inquiring into an allegation that a private concern, Park Lane (Pvt) Ltd, had encroached upon 60-70 kanals of MHNP. The NAB had filed a reference in the matter and even arrested some officers.
Some days back, the Margalla forest and MHNP again shot into prominence when the IHC chief justice took notice of the issue of encroachments by the naval golf course and a well-known restaurant of the capital, located on the Margalla hills, and ordered the attachment of the two facilities situated in the MHNP.
This part of the Margalla hills is called in the revenue record “The Military Grass Farms”, based on which the army authorities took control of the MHNP situated in the 25 compartments of military grass farms.
Despite this prominence, it has always been a mystery as to who is the owner of the Margalla reserve forest, and what is the difference between the MHNP and the Margalla reserve forest and military grass farms.
A senior civil servant, who has dealt with the MHNP and the issues pertaining to it in different administrative capacities, told The News that the MHNP was established in 1980 through notification No. S.R.O. 443 (1)/80, dated 28th April, 1980 under section 21 of Islamabad Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation & Management) Ordinance, 1979.
It declared the following areas to be in the MHNP: the Margalla Reserve Forest comprising compartments numbers 2 to 5, 7 to 23, 28, 30, to 38 to 41 (ii); military grass farms comprising compartments numbers 1 to 25; lands falling in villages Mangial, Malach Dakhali, Phulgran, Mandia, Jhang, Malpur, (Bijran), Rumli, Narias, Padoh Dakhali, Noorpur Shahan, Ratta Hottar, Saidpur, DhokJiwan, Ghandian, Kilinjar, and Saniari; the area bounded by Shahrah-i-Kashmir in the north, Shahrah-i-Islamabad in the west and Murree Road in the South and East up to the junction with Shahrah-I-Kashmir and Rawal lake and areas within the distance of 2km from the highest water mark of the lake.
The notification shows that the MHNP is a large whole with 33 compartments of Margalla Reserve Forests as its component along Northwest of Islamabad. Besides, twenty-five compartments of military grass farms towards the North of E-7 up to the end of Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) limits in the East near Shahdara are part of the MHNP.
Other than this, the villages listed at clause III of the notification also form part of MHNP, which are acquired by the CDA. Similarly, the enclave of land comprising Shakparian, Lok Virsa, Sports Complex Islamabad Club, Polo Ground, Islamabad Riding Club, Islamabad Golf Course, Gun Club, Parade Ground, heliport, and China Expo Centre fall in the MHNP.
The string of motels and marquees along the Murree Road from Faizabad up to the Islamabad Club are located in the MHNP since as per the notification they are within the Kashmir highway on the North, Islamabad Highway from Zero Point up to Faizabad on the West and Murree Road from Faizabad up to the Convention Centre chowk in the South.
Senior forest service officials and bureaucrats, who have been secretaries of the forest department in Punjab, say the Margalla reserve forest’s 33 compartments though located in the ICT are owned by the Punjab Forest Department (PFD). This part of the forest was leased by the PFD to the CDA in the 1960s for 20 years. After expiry, the lease was renewed for another ten years. Since then the lease has not been extended. However, the operational control of the reserve forest remains with the CDA, which has been paying a lease amount of rupee one per acre per annum to the PFD.
According to the PDF record, the 25 compartments of the military grass farms are part of the Margalla reserve forest leased to the CDA in the 1960s. It displays that the reserve forest starts near Satrah mile on Murree Road in the east and extends along the northern perimeter of the federal capital up to the Ziarat compartment beyond the Nicholson Monument on the northwest across the GT Road near Taxila. The record shows that the military grass farms are also owned by the PFD.
The history of grass farms illustrates that the British Indian army had a lot of horses, mules, and buffaloes in the early twentieth century. Just before the First World War in the 1910s, the forest department through a local executive order gave grass cutting rights to the British army on payment basis. The army used to pay an annual fee until the 1980s. These rights were also granted in Kala Chitta Range in Attock and Chakwal and Jhelum forest ranges.
The army in turn sublet these rights to local contractors belonging to adjacent villages, who would cut the grass and provide it to the military. The involvement of local people helped prevent summer forest fires. Since local people had an economic stake, they would not allow forest fire, which now have become a frequent sight and the government agencies have failed to prevent it.
In 2011, the issue of the Margalla forest’ ownership and lease was agitated by the Punjab government with the federal government.
The two governments hit an impasse in the battle for the ownership of forest. A committee constituted by the Cabinet Division for solving the dispute was decried as an inappropriate forum by the representatives from Punjab who demanded that the issue be taken to the Council of Common Interests (CCI).
The then Rawalpindi commissioner and the Punjab chief conservator of forests had repudiated the CDA’s claim after federal representatives claimed that the ownership of the land was handed over to Islamabad in the 1980s. After the establishment of the ICT administration through an ordinance, the land ownership had passed to the federal government. However, both sides had agreed to a fresh demarcation of Margalla Hills to save it from encroachers.
In August 2012, the Cabinet Division formed a committee comprising members from the CDA, ICT administration and PFD and Rawalpindi commissioner in the backdrop of a letter written by Punjab Forest Secretary Maj. (retd) Shah Nawaz Badar to the CDA chairman.
The forest secretary stated in the letter that the CDA had approached the Punjab government for transfer of management of Margalla reserve forests after Islamabad was declared as the federal capital in 1960.
Responding to the request, Punjab had leased out 11,970 acres out of 12,511 acres of the forestland to the CDA for 20 years in 1961. After the lease expired in 1981, it was extended for 10 years. However, after 1991 neither did the CDA ask for another extension nor did the Punjab government take any step to reclaim the ownership of the forestland. The Punjab government came into action in 2012 when the CDA kicked off work on the construction of Margalla Avenue that will pass through the forests near Labana village.
The Punjab secretary claimed that the construction of the avenue would be in violation of the lease agreement signed by the West Pakistan [now Punjab] agriculture secretary and CDA’s Horticulture Directorate in 1966. He asserted that the CDA had failed to check the ever-increasing encroachments on the Margalla Hills.
The Cabinet Division formed the committee where both the sides claimed that the forest land belonged to them. The PFD officials believe that the CDA and ICT administration have usurped Punjab’s rights over the land. They contend that the land was leased out to them but now they are claiming ownership. “If they own the forest, why did the CDA not ask for extension in the lease agreement?”
The record shows that only the grass cutting rights were given to the Military Veterinary and Farms Corps (MV&FC) to provide fodder to the military animals and MVFC regularly paid and annual fee to forest department.
It is clear from the 1980 notification, which established the MHNP, and the original lease agreement that the CDA is also a lessee and it is required to maintain the Margalla forest as the MHNP, and can’t violate the Islamabad Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation & Management) Ordinance, 1979 under which MHNP was set up. The ultimate owner of the Margalla Reserve Forest and the military grass lands is the entity which is uninterested and dormant at present -- and that is the PFD.
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