Can Margalla be saved from commercial predators?

June 7, 2020

Illegal expansion by eateries in Margalla Hills National Park is a threat to the ecology of the protected zone

Margalla Hills, the most picturesque area of Islamabad, face a serious threat from expanding commercial activities.

The area – protected through a special law in 1979 and declared the Margalla Hills National Park (MHNP) in early 1980 for protection and preservation of its wildlife, flora and fauna – is now a popular picnic spot. This has increased its commercial attractiveness, especially for restaurant business. Oversight bodies, especially the capital administration, have failed to check the problem.

In the latest episode, the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) and the Capital Development Authority (CDA) have had to seal a popular restaurant following the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s orders.

The court heard the case last month and issued a restraint order against an expansion of the Monal Restaurant.

The five-member SC bench, headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, also ordered the Islamabad administration to re-plant trees that had been cut down to expand the restaurant.

Earlier, the restaurant management had been trying to expand its infrastructure without obtaining an official approval for it.

Although growing commercial activity is still damaging the MHNP, Monal was seen as the biggest source of the deterioration in the park because of the large number of people who visited the restaurant.

Established in 2006 with a 15-year lease, the restaurant had massively expanded its presence in the park. The eatery had become very popular and had profited greatly from the numbers it attracted.

A few years ago, the Pakistan Army claimed ownership/allotment of the particular piece of land where Monal is situated as part of its grazing land.

Following a long legal and administrative battle, the restaurant is now paying most of the rent for the lease to the army and depositing only a small sum with the CDA.

Talking to The News on Sunday, a senior CDA official, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, said that the matter of ownership was not settled.

“In December 2019, when IWMB and CDA officials directed the restaurant management to stop expansion, they claimed that they were carrying on the construction work after obtaining permission from the army,” he said.

According to an official report, submitted to the Metropolitan Corporation of Islamabad following the incident, the duty guard saw workers from Monal – situated in Saidpur Range – digging land using heavy machinery and building a stone wall.

“The forest guard tried to stop the work, but some military personnel reached the site and said the work had their approval as it was military property. They also gave the name and contact of a senior army officer,” the report stated.

A police complaint was lodged on December 23 and a second one was registered after May 19 (SC hearing).

There is no doubt that the restaurant’s activities have become contentious in recent years. Suspension of waste removal has ruined the natural beauty of the Margalla Hills. Locals say it was not like that only a few years ago. Today, hundreds of cars make their way to the restaurants located in the park, causing pollution and intruding on the wildlife habitat in the park.

“We took up this matter in December 2019. During the recent lockdown, Monal employees speeded up the digging work. When questioned, they told the guards to contact army personnel,” said Dr Anisur Rehman, the IWMB chairman. “The board has only moral authority. We are meant to protect the wildlife in the park. The capital administration’s environment department retains administrative powers. However, the law does not allow such concrete structures to be built without an environmental impact assessment (EIA). None of the restaurants in the park have obtained any EIAs for their concrete structures,” Dr Rehman says.

When contacted, a Monal employee, told TNS that the restaurant had not carried out any illegal construction.

“The restaurant is only closed because of the coronavirus situation. Reports of our premises being sealed are false. Recently, the president presented the Pride of Performance (Entrepreneurship) award to our owner,” he said.

There is no doubt that the restaurant’s activities have become contentious in recent years. Suspension of waste removal has ruined the natural beauty of the Margalla Hills. Locals say it was not like that only a few years ago.

Today, hundreds of cars make their way to the restaurants located in the park, causing pollution and intruding on the wildlife habitat in the park.

The law, however, strictly prohibits any commercial activity and settlement in the area. A chain of hotels, mushrooming in the park, is destroying the environment.

Section 21 of the National Park ordinance allows “provision for access roads to, and construction of rest houses, hotels and other buildings in the National Park along with amenities for public without impairing the object for which it is declared a national park.”

However, these restaurants are changing the national wildlife and forest park and the protected buffer zone into a busy picnic spot.

Given the increase in traffic, there is dire need to protect the picturesque Margalla Hills and preserve its wildlife and flora.

Exploitation of the park continues with a number of companies allowed to operate restaurants without EIAs.

A previous survey of the park had found 45 per cent of the area in a bad shape and eight per cent partially degraded. However, the rest of the area was in a relatively good condition.

Many environmental experts believe that commercial use of the National Park land cannot be justified. The reserve is meant to protect the wildlife in the park. These eateries seriously disturb the natural balance in the area.

They point out that the park lands became commercially attractive after the enormous success of Monal Restaurant. They demand that the concrete structures be converted into museums or wildlife institutes. They also recommend limiting visiting hours to the park.

As long as the governments and capital administration prioritize business interests, the natural habitat of the park will continue to suffer.

The almost 40-kilometer long chain of Margalla Hills, spread over 12,605 hectares, was declared a preserved area through the Islamabad Wildlife (Protection, Preservation, Conservation and Management) Ordinance 1979. The Rawal Lake and Shakarparian are also part of the park.

Out of the 175 square kilometer park area, 125 square kilometres consist of Margalla Hills. The boundary of the park has not been clearly demarcated.

When the area was made a national park, the then ruler, Gen Ziaul Haq, ordered the relocation of intelligence offices located there (close to the current Trail #5), and opened up the area to public for recreation, education and research.

The CDA has been managing the MHNP ever since its inception in 1979 under the Islamabad Wildlife Ordinance. The IWMB is supposed to assist the authority in its duties.

However, this board still needs empowerment to protect wildlife and forests. The CDA and the IWMB have been in conflict over the exercise of authority in the park.

Talking to TNS, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam says any illegal logging or construction would not be tolerated in the MHNP. “No one can be allowed to play havoc with the MHNP and degrade it for their greedy designs,” he says.

Asked about the role of the military in the recent efforts to expand the restaurant and communication in this regard between the CDA and the army, all departments remained tightlipped.

The writer is a staff member and can be reached at [email protected]

Can Margalla be saved from commercial predators?