Troubled waters

August 30, 2020

The Navy Club sails into a controversy at Rawal Lake

Rawal Lake is a source of drinking water for Rawalpindi and poisoning of its water through unimpeded construction activity from Islamabad till Murree is an issue that remains unaddressed. Courts have taken up this matter at various occasions but there has been no tangible change in the situation yet.

The lake again attracted public attention recently when the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on July 24 ordered the sealing of the Navy Sailing Club there.

It had already been a part of public discussion as some social media platforms with presence of Pakistan Navy’s retired officials and their families had been sharing pictures of the swanky Club at Rawal Lake with a brand-new building, which was generating a lot of questions. The facility was sealed on the complaint of Zeenat Saleem w/o Major Sadiq Salim. She claimed that the club has been built through “illegal occupation” of land; and the construction of the building, and denial of public access to it are in violation of the CDA Ordinance, 1960, and fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan.

In a related development that may not have been popularly reported in mainstream media; before submission of this case, Dr Azizur Rehman, a law professor, had submitted a complaint on the Prime Minister’s Portal that the road beside the lake, on which this club is situated, has been closed. In reply to his complaint, the PM’s Office had noted that some people try to swim in that area, and this often results in drowning accidents. The reply had stated that the road had been closed due to risk of deaths by drowning.

In the IHC case, the CDA had told the court that the building was constructed without proper approval and fulfilment of official requirements. Requesting anonymity, a senior official of the civic body has told The News on Sunday, that the CDA had issued a notice against the building even before the court had taken up the case.

Zafar Mehmood Abbasi, the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), in a report submitted to the court said that this is “neither a club… nor is it a commercial enterprise.”

In fact, the facility has been built from a welfare fund for Navy officers and it is not for profit. Back in 1992, Benazir Bhutto had initiated the process for setting up this centre at Rawal Lake to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that required some attention towards Olympic sports ( water sports make up for 40 percent of these).

Chief of Naval Staff was made patron-in-chief of all water sports. The navy has won many national and international medals in this category. Five such centres have been set up in Karachi. Their basic purpose is to train for free people in how to sail in addition to serving as stations for the teams that rescue or recover drowned people.

Saqlain Haider says that while the concerned authorities wait for the IHC’s decision on the Sailing Club, they should be taking action to clean the lake. He says the courts have issued several orders in the past for protection of Rawal Lake and the surrounding National Park area.

Nazir Ahmed, a yachtsman trained at Rawal Lake centre, says that people of Islamabad have shown great sporting spirit. He says this centre has produced Munir Sadiq, who won the Asian Gold Medal in sailing.

The Pakistan Navy’s response, a thick volume, stated that the actual name of the establishment is National Water Sports Centre. The reply mentions that the complainant has already been in litigation with Navy Farms Directorate on a matter of alleged violation of CDA building bylaws at Navy Farms near Simly Dam.

After submission of this reply, the court has allowed the Pakistan Navy to carry on with maintenance and repair of about 100 boats that are parked there while the facility is to remain sealed till September 9.

Islamabad Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat says that the case is in the court and soon a verdict will be out. He says that people need to understand that Rawal Lake is a complex matter. “The lake is managed by Small Dams Organization. This is an auxiliary of the Punjab Irrigation Department,” he says.

“The land around the lake falls in the jurisdiction of Forest Department. The environment wing of Municipal Corporation Islamabad (MCI) protects it against environmental threats. Fisheries Department of ICT Administration looks after it deciding how and who fish here,” he says.

“CDA’s Planning and Enforcement Wings also look after certain affairs in the park area. All these departments work together,” he says.

He adds that the prime minister had allotted land for the sailing facility back in early 1990s and Pakistan Navy had completed the construction. “Let us see what the court decides,” he says.

This is not the first time that the Rawal Lake and its environs have been a subject of controversy. “Illegal occupation of the land started back in 1990s when Dr AQ Khan [among others] built a big house at the back of the lake,” says Dr Tahir Malik who regularly leads study circles.

He says when the CDA launched a drive to demolish the illegal structures at that time, a propaganda drive was launched to claim that the government was targeting the scientist at the behest of anti-Pakistan forces.

During the Musharraf era, large tracts of protected land around the lake were dished out to influential people, and the environmental assault on the lake continued. A report compiled by the Auditor General of Pakistan in 2017 mentions a variety of toxic substances added to the lake through Korang River and other streams. This includes waste from poultry farms.

“If you remember, the Supreme Court had ordered regularization of such constructions after payment of a fine on a letter written by Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose house is also by the lake,” said Dr Malik.

Saqlain Haider, a development professional, says that while the concerned authorities wait for the IHC’s decision on the Sailing Club, they should be taking action to clean the lake. He says the courts had issued verdicts in the past for protection of Rawal Lake and the surrounding National Park area. “What are the authorities waiting for in acting upon those orders?” he asks.

The writer studies and teaches media. He can be reached on Twitter at @furraat

Troubled waters