The battle for breath

November 5, 2023

Emerald gardens and a breath of fresh air is what residents of the country’s third largest city pine for

The battle for breath

I yearn for my village,” says Naziran Bibi. The woman, aged 65, sits in the tiny courtyard of her two-and-a-half-marla house. “It was lush green. The air was clean,” she remembers, her gaze fixed on the birds in the sky.

A decade ago, Bibi moved with her only son, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren from Shareenwala, a Faisalabad suburb, to Mohalla Feroz Shah, a middle-class city area. The decision to move was made by her son who wanted his children to study in the city.

Bibi had to make a sacrifice for her grandchildren. Now, she is paying a steep price, “living in a cramped house in a narrow street in a polluted city.”

“Ever since I moved to the city, I have longed to breathe in open air and see greenery,” she says, adding “…our house in the village had a big yard. It had a kitchen garden where I planted flowers and vegetables with my own hands.”

“It is different here. The city is suffocating. There is nowhere to go. The nearest park is five or six kilometres from my house. It is not possible for me to walk there,” says Naziran Bibi.

Like Naziran Bibi, most of the residents of the country’s third largest city long for a glimpse of green or a whiff of fresh air. Small to medium scale factories dominate the city’s skyline even in the so-called residential areas.

According to the master plan 2021-2041 prepared by the Faisalabad Development Authority, the green cover of the city including parks and open spaces is 683 acres, which is 1.92 percent of the city’s total area.

Out of this, 481 acres of parks and 60 acres of green belts are owned by the Parks and Horticulture Authority. Another 143 acres of parks and green areas are managed by private organisations or individuals.

It should be noted that, according to the National Forest Policy approved in September 2021, at least 25 percent of the area should be covered by forests or green cover in any city; the global standard is 40 percent.

Only half-hearted attempts have been made to increase the green cover in Faisalabad.

In March 2020, the city got its first urban forest, spanning an area of four acres. As many as 2,200 saplings were planted in the presence of the then deputy commissioner and the PHA director general in this urban forest located a few furlongs away from the Model Cattle Market in Chak 235 RB, Niamoana. However, this urban forest has degraded due to a lack of effective maintenance and protection.

Mohammad Irshad, a resident of the area, says the urban forest was a mere publicity gimmick. “Some government officials came over, planted a handful of saplings, took photographs and then left. In a few weeks, these plants wilted because of a lack of care, heat and a lack of proper irrigation,” says Irshad.

Earlier in February 2020, the district administration had planted 300,000 trees under the Clean and Green Punjab programme on 300 acres of land in Chak 558 GB, a few kilometers from Mamu Kanjan, a Faisalabad suburb.

The then deputy commissioner, Muhammad Ali, had announced plans to plant a total of 1.5 million saplings in the urban forest over the next five years. Three and a half years have passed since then and there is no sign of a forest.

Speaking of the project, Muhammad Zubair, a local journalist, tells The News on Sunday that two and a half years ago, the land allocated for the project has been taken over by illegal occupants. “The occupants have started farming on the land,” he says. “The tehsil administration was contacted several times to retrieve the government land but effective action has not been taken,” he says.

Assistant Commissioner Rana Aurangzeb of Tandlianwala says most of the plants planted in the area had died due to a lack of maintenance.

“The land on which farming had been started has been repossessed; the crop cultivated by the land-grabbers has been auctioned for Rs 1.3 million. The proceeds have been deposited in the government treasury,” he says. He says the land has been handed over to the Revenue Department. “It will be leased for cultivation through an auction,” he says.

In response to a question about the status of the plantation initiative, the official says it had been decided not to use this land to plant an urban forest on account of the ‘non-cooperation of the Forest Department.

On August 27, 2021, a day before Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Ali was transferred away, the district management claimed to have achieved a world record by planting 100,000 saplings in Kaleem Shaheed Park on Narwala Road.

After questions were raised by some citizens and the media about the claim, Asima Ejaz Cheema, the PHA director general, said that 7,500 saplings had been planted in the park.

Later the same month, the PHA-Faisalabad announced a plan to plant Miyawaki forests at 20 locations in the city over the next year. Under this technique, trees and shrubs are planted in multiple layers depending on the organic needs of the soil. Dense planting ensures that the place take the form of a forest within a few years, after which minimal maintenance is needed.

The battle for breath

To inaugurate the Miyawaki forest project, the then minister Zartaj Gul visited the city and planted a few saplings at the Jinnah Garden. Despite the passage of two years, the project has not been completed. Till date, there is no Miyawaki forest in sight at D Ground Park, Peenga Walli Ground, RB Canal Front at Steam Power House, RB Canal Front at LGS, along RB Canal near Treat Bakery Chowk, at Club Road near Paramedics College and Crescent Park.

The saplings planted using the technique are showing signs of stunted and slow growth, mainly because of a lack of maintenance.

Speaking of this project, Asma Cheema says that she had prepared a plan to plant Miyawaki forests at 20 places in the city and started implementing it. She says after she was transferred the project did not retain its priority status.

In response to a right to information request, PHA Director General Zameer Hussain said that the PHA had not planted any urban forests between January 2018 and December 2020.

The PHA provided no information regarding the expenditure incurred on plantation in the city during this period, the number of plants and the support received from the citizens in this regard.

About the plan to plant Miyawaki forests, the PHA official informed TNS that the saplings had been planted at 15 locations at a cost of about Rs 30 million between January 2021 and August 2023.

“Six of the clusters were planted during the first year of the project and the rest over the next two years. The total area was about six acres,” he said, adding that 53,000 saplings of arjun, amlatas, kitchenaar, guava, mulberry, jaman, sukh chain and pulkan, kaner among other species had been planted.

In Miyawaki forests planted by the PHA, the cost per plant is estimated to be around Rs 1,000. However, the cost is fixed at Rs 350 per plant in the Punjab Government Environmental Development plan for the next five years.

The official said that no saplings or financial support had been provided by any social organisation for planting the Miyawaki forests.

However, Faizan Relief Global Foundation, an NGO, claimed that plants were provided and other other arrangements made for Miyawaki forests at four locations - Madinah Town, Khurarianwala Bridge, Canal Road and Jhang Road - by them.

Muhammad Waseem, the FRGF divisional coordinator, said that the Miyawaki forests planted by his organisation in collaboration with the PHA were found deteriorating. He said the FRGF had then taken over charge of irrigating and protecting the forsets at their own expense.

PHA Deputy Director Mohammad Zaheer says, there may have been occasional lapses in maintenance due to a shortage of staff. However, he adds that most of the maintenance of Miyawaki forest planted at these sites was still done by PHA staff.

Despite spending millions of rupees from the public exchequer on Clean and Green Punjab, the Billion Tree Tsunami programme and annual plantation drives in monsoon and spring seasons, the city’s vegetation cover remains scarce.

According to Mohammad Azeem Sabir, an MPhil student in the Department of Forestry of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, who has researched the subject there has been no significant increase in the vegetation cover during the last four decades.

He says new plantations in densely populated areas of the city are negligible and old trees are being cut down to make room for construction or for other purposes.

According to Global Forest Research, an international organisation that monitors forests and green cover around the world through satellites, over the last two decades, green cover equivalent to an area of ten acres has decreased in Faisalabad city. The presence of trees in the city as a whole has decreased by 11 percent, resulting in an increase in CO2 emissions of approximately 1,560 tonnes per annum.

According to a report released by the Environment Protection Department in June, the average life expectancy of the citizens of Faisalabad has decreased by 4.8 years due to the air pollution.

According to this report, the EPD received 1,091 complaints related to environmental pollution from 36 districts across the Punjab in 2022. Of those, 512 were related to air pollution. The highest number of complaints, 116, were received from Faisalabad.

Dr Amara Habib, a member of the Urban Unit team preparing a five-year plan for the environmental development of Faisalabad, says there is a dire need for plantation in Faisalabad.

She says that the goal of the plan is to increase green cover in the city. “We will do so by improving the condition of 142 parks in various areas of the city besides increasing the number of trees. The emphasis is on planting more trees along canals and roads,” she says.

“The aim is to identify 900 acres of land in various parts of the city and plant more than 700,000 new trees over the next five years,” she says.

According to Zameer Hussain, the total green area in the city, including parks and green belts, is 816 acres. He says maintenance is difficult due to limited manpower and financial resources. He also says that vegetation cover has improved through PHA efforts.

However, the PHA’s claims are contradicted by the statistics cited in the city’s Master Plan 2021-41.

According to this document, in 1985, the area allocated for parks and green areas was 944 acres. It has decreased by 128 acres since then. Also, according to the data given in the master plan, there is no park or green area in 44 percent of Faisalabad city.

The master plan has identified an area of 1,436 acres for creating parks at eight locations.

According to research conducted by Ayesha Saleem and Sadia Ejaz, students of the Geography Department of Government College University, Faisalabad, citizens are facing problems because there aren’t enough parks in the city.

In a survey taken by them, more than 55 percent of visitors expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of the parks and asked for better recreational facilities. The research concluded that access to parks was limited.

The writer has been associated with journalism for the past decade. He tweets @ naeemahmad876

The battle for breath