An industrial hub and an ecological disaster

May 12, 2024

Tracing the history of industrial evolution and unpacking the environmental challenges that rose from it

An industrial hub and an ecological disaster


aisalabad’s origins can be traced back to the late 19th Century, during the British Raj, when the region was initially developed for agriculture as part of the Chenab Colony project in 1892. There was extensive digging for the canal that transformed the arid landscape into arable land.

In 1897, the burgeoning agricultural settlement was formally established as a new city named Lyallpur. In 1904, it was given the status of a district. Prior to this, the area, known as Sandal Bar nestled between the Ravi and Chenab rivers was part of the Jhang district.

Historical accounts from the British Rule gazetteers describe Sandal Bar as a region rich in natural resources, featuring dense forests populated by an array of trees including jund, wan, karir, shirin, shisham, kekar, bur, mulberry, neem, dheraik, peepal and banyan. These lush forests, along with numerous lakes and expansive grasslands, supported a vibrant ecosystem.

The wildlife in Sandal Bar was diverse, home to species such as deer, chinkara, wild boar, gadder and leopards. The avian population was equally rich. It included parrots, bulbuls, sparrows, mynas, quails, pheasants, pigeons, crows, eagles, hummingbirds, blackbirds, herons, grouses and swallows. The area was a seasonal haven for a plethora of migratory birds during the winter months.

The region’s reptiles, amphibians and insects, such as snakes, lizards, frogs, butterflies and bees, played crucial roles in maintaining the ecological balance. Before the advent of the colonial irrigation project, the native tribes of Sandal Bar deemed the land too poor for cultivation, relying instead on the unpredictable monsoon rains or river floods. These tribes, residing near the riversides, primarily engaged in rearing livestock including buffaloes, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, mules and camels, adapting to the natural cycles and constraints of the terrain.

In 1885, the British deputy commissioner of Jhang, Captain Becky, was contemplating the ideal location for a new city near Sir Shamir village. This village was named after Sardar Shamir Khan. Khan had provided crucial support, including horses and manpower, to the British during the 1857 War of Independence, earning him a knighthood from the British Raj.

During his travels from Lahore to Jhang around the same period, Captain Becky discovered a more suitable area for city development near Pakki Maari (close to the tomb of Noor Shah Wali, situated behind the current General Bus Stand). Consequently, Captain Popham Yang was tasked with establishing a new city over an area of 110 acres, located one mile west of Pakki Maari.

Research by Dr Muhammad Abrar Ahmad, an assistant professor at the University of Education Lahore, has revealed that the Chenab Colony’s early settlers came from various ethnic groups. The Jatts, mostly Hindus from Amritsar, Hoshiarpur, Sialkot, Gurdaspur and Gujarat, formed a significant segment. Muslims predominantly came from Jullender, Hoshiarpur, Ludhiana, Lahore and Sialkot. Most of them were from the Arain caste. Sikhs were the third major group. They were often allotted lands under military grants.

These settlers were categorised into three main groups based on social hierarchy. Rais emigrants were allocated 20 squares of land, the middle-class Safaid Posh received 5 squares and the working-class settlers were given 2 squares each. Additionally, lands were leased to breeders of horses, camels and mules. A considerable portion of the land was auctioned.

These diverse settlers made over 1.1 million acres of land arable using water from three main canals in the Chenab Colony: the Rakh Branch, the Gogera Branch and the Jhang Branch. The primary objective of settling this region was to secure a steady supply of grain, camels, horses and mules for the British army.

The Chenab Colony not only achieved this objective but rapidly evolved into one of Punjab’s richest agricultural hubs, eventually being celebrated by British policymakers as an “agricultural miracle.”

From its inception in 1901, Faisalabad displayed remarkable population growth. Starting with 9,171 residents, within a decade, the population had surged by 101 per cent. The growth was fuelled largely by the settlement of agricultural lands and the migration of farmers from the surrounding districts.

By 1921, the population had again registerd an 85 per cent increase. Meanwhile, wheat production had risen by almost 40 per cent and cotton production had doubled. This led to the establishment of three large cotton mills between 1931 and 1941, attracting labourers from East Punjab and further swelling the population.

The partition of India in 1947 marked a significant demographic shift, with a substantial influx of Muslim immigrants from East Punjab, leading to a record 156 per cent increase in Lyallpur’s population. This growth trajectory continued post-independence, with the population soaring by another 147.62 per cent from 1951 to 1961. This period saw Lyallpur declared as an industrial zone, with a tax holiday to attract investors, catalysing the establishment of numerous textile mills. As a result, many individuals from farming communities in nearby villages relocated to the city in search of employment opportunities.

The trend of urban migration persisted, and over the last five decades, Faisalabad has witnessed successive population increases of 94 per cent, 50 per cent, 61 per cent and 62 per cent each decade. This sustained growth highlights the city’s ongoing transformation from an agricultural hub to a major industrial center, drawing people from rural areas and across Pakistan in search of better livelihoods.

Over a span of 126 years, Faisalabad has witnessed a remarkable transformation, evolving from a modest population of 9,171 in 1901 to a bustling metropolis housing over 9.07 million residents according to the 2023 census. This exponential growth in population parallels the city’s industrial expansion, which has seen a meteoric rise from just three industrial establishments to thousands today.

The census data from 1998 highlighted the diversity and scale of Faisalabad’s industrial landscape at the time, with approximately 768 major industrial units. These included 31 spinning mills, 150 processing mills, 27 flour mills, 6 sugar mills and 13 ghee/ cooking oil units. The city also hosted 185 engineering units, 122 hosiery units, 9 cotton ginning factories, 193 soap and silicate factories, 26 daal (pulses) factories, 2 beverage factories, a chipboard factory, a watch factory, a jute mill, a large corn processing unit and a caustic soda plant. Additionally, cottage industry was thriving with more than 20,000 units incorporating 120,000 power looms.

A more recent survey in 2014-15, titled The Sense of Manufacturing Industries reported 942 low-technology, 964 medium-low technology, 713 medium-high technology and 33 high-technology industries operating in Faisalabad.

Today, Faisalabad is the third-largest industrial hub in Pakistan. A significant milestone in its industrial journey has been the establishment of Pakistan’s largest economic zone, covering 3,200 acres, under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This zone underscores Faisalabad’s pivotal role in Pakistan’s industrial economy.

Over the past century, Faisalabad has undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving first from a wilderness to a bustling agricultural market and then into a thriving industrial hub. Its rate of development has been unparalleled. This rapid growth has not only established Faisalabad as a significant global industrial centre but also attracted a vast influx of people from across the Punjab and beyond, seeking employment opportunities in the city.

While this journey of development and population expansion has solidified Faisalabad’s recognition on the global stage, it has also brought about significant environmental challenges. The city’s swift industrialisation has placed considerable strain on the natural resources, leading to a host of ecological issues. Now these environmental impacts are becoming critical, necessitating urgent attention and sustainable management to safeguard the region’s ecological health for future generations.

According to Asian Development Bank, more than 90 per cent of Faisalabad’s underground water is contaminated. The water table has plummeted to a depth of 300 feet. Additionally, the forested area has dwindled to less than two per cent, leading to the extinction of numerous species of trees, birds and animals. Recent studies have shown that, over the last two decades alone, Faisalabad has lost green cover equivalent to ten acres and the number of trees has decreased by 11 per cent. Urban planning has also seen a regression with the area designated for parks and green spaces shrinking from the originally allocated 944 acres to 816 acres. Alarmingly, 44 per cent of the city has no parks or green areas at all.

As an industrial hub, Faisalabad faces significant challenges in terms of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Factors contributing to these problems include high emissions from industrial activities, vehicle emissions, energy production largely dependent on fossil fuels and burning of agricultural waste. More than 573 million gallons of industrial wastewater is discharged untreated into the River Chenab and River Ravi every day. This poses severe health risks to aquatic life, agriculture and the residents of the area.

Regrettably, despite the severity of these environmental issues, local governments, industrial organisations and public representatives have been unmoved. This inaction has brought Faisalabad to the brink of an ecological disaster.

Their is an urgent need for a collaboration among policymakers, public representatives, industry leaders, labour leaders and the community. Together, they must steer Faisalabad towards a sustainable future grounded in the principles of ecological civilisation. Such efforts are crucial to align industrial development with environmental stewardship, thereby fostering a healthier, more sustainable future for Faisalabad.

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

An industrial hub and an ecological disaster