Dr Ajaz Anwar talks of a huge botanical garden in Iqbal Town owned and maintained by Mian Ahmad Din, which is home to “the largest collection of local trees, some dating back to pre-partition times
If you Google Allama Iqbal Town’s Jahanzeb Block, a botanical garden will show up. It’s unique in the whole country as it boasts the largest collection of local trees, some dating back to pre-partition times. These include mangoes, jamans, sheeshams, baeris, lasooras, sumbals, peepals and even a now near-extinct goandani.
According to local oral history, it was a huge garden owned and maintained by one Mian Ahmad Din who had made a fortune as the holder of a ration depot. It had a dedicated tubewell for which he regularly paid the electricity bill. Here he would hold regular qawwali events. When Iqbal Town was planned in the early 1970s, this garden was included in the scheme.
The planners had the good sense of retaining albeit a small portion of it to be used as a nursery to encourage the households to plant some greenery in their open areas. In fact, it was mandatory for each house to plant a tree in their open area.
Though Mian was given some ‘exempt’ plots in lieu of the acquired land, for years he fought legal battles and died a dejected man. His extended family members live nearby and regularly come for their morning jogs. The LDA and, later, the PHA maintained the garden and employed a number of gardeners some of whom were ghost employees and tended to the gardens of various officers and privately served in the locality.
The garden came to be surrounded by a road on all the four sides and was provided with a steel railing fence. The trees, planted long before the laying of the roads, followed a different orientation. A local welfare society with regularly elected office bearers took care of its wellbeing. Kanwal Firoz and, later, Mr Enayat were often elected its presidents. Mr Younus, Prof Shahid Aleemi, carpeter Nazir, Mustafa (owner of a tourism company venturing into the Northern Areas), and Advocate Latif Butt were active members. Lately, Advocate Mirza and a political activist named Idrees also took interest in the upkeep of the greenery.
Some charitable people serve free meal every day. The garden provided space for morning walks for the seniors and jogging for the youth. Some youngsters played cricket much to the annoyance of the ladies and children. A yoga club was founded by late Jan Mohammad, a migrant from Gurdaspur, who had crossed the Sutlej River on the shoulders of his father while his grandfather failed to make it.
Lawrence Gardens should not have been rechristened as Baghe Jinnah. Gulshan-i-Iqbal, however, was a good idea. Gen Ansari diligently worked and supervised the laying of it in memory of the national poet. He followed the design of Kamyo Kondo, a Japanese landscapist employed to lay down the Jilani Park. The resultant lining of the alien trees does not allow any shade during the hot summers. The site originally consisted of abandoned brick kilns. (Recently, someone made a large bust of Allama Iqbal to which the more pious ones objected for it being a sculpture. It was subsequently removed amid much controversy.) Gen Ansari was a sworn enemy of all local trees. Gulshan-i-Iqbal has only one old peepal tree along the lake. The only birds are the ducks enjoying a swim in the large water lake.
As more funds were needed, he as chairman of LDA ordered the nursery garden of Mian Ahmad Din to be divided into three-marla plots. The move was vehemently opposed by the locals. An article, titled Children’s Park for sale, written by Anwar, appeared in The Pakistan Times. Consequently, the garden was spared.
Summers here are especially pleasant due to the cool shade of the trees. Thousands of birds come to sing psalms in the glory of the Creator and roost. During winters, all the trees, being local, shed their foliage to allow the people to enjoy the sun. As the surrounding roads are higher, the garden serves as a soaking pit during the rains, replenishing the groundwater. Come spring, as the mango and jamans bear fruit, children climb the trees and play havoc with the gifts of nature.
The Sacrificial Eid too is a time of devastation. People buy expensive sheep and goats but do not buy fodder for their animals and let them graze in the garden.
When some trees here started dying mysteriously, it was found out that the culprit was a catering man who in order to put up tents for the wedding events, devised ways to kill some trees. The PHA was more interested in the fees it got for each function, during which the gardeners got free meals. The following mornings stray dogs and cats and the crows too feasted.
It was rumoured that the same payment slip was used for several functions. Fortunately, a ban has now been imposed on use of green spaces for banquets.
A faith-healer would hold iftar parties here. The locals took upon themselves to protect the garden. The PHA had planted some ornamental alien trees and plants including the water guzzling corno corpus to which the welfare society members objected. The Lahore Conservation Society (LCS) held its traditional Last Wednesday of the Month Meeting here, and it was decided that no alien plants would be allowed.
With the change of government better days were expected for the garden because Shafqat Mahmood had again been elected from the constituency. I know him personally, but not once has he bothered to pay a visit to thank the voters.
Suddenly, some big plans seem to be taking shape. The jogging track inside the peripheral walls have been consolidated and improved. A deputy director has been posted here to the extent of only a name plate. He has yet to report for duty. New lights have been installed in the garden thanks to the efforts made by Engr Umair. This has improved the security of the place, and habitual delinquents and narcotics consumers who would earlier spend ‘happy hours’ have been discouraged.
All the trees have been numbered, as per tradition in the pre-partition times. Only last month, a news report said that as part of the “billion trees” campaign, many open areas in the city have been earmarked to develop Miyawaki forests, a Japanese idea in which a dense jungle is created in a very small area that develops in a very short time. The garden in Iqbal Town is also to be included in the experiment. The next we know, huge motorised excavators entered the garden. They cleared a large portion dug deep into the soil, and raised mountains of rich clay while the community wondered as to what was going on.
The roots of the tall ancient trees had been exposed. The workforce poured wheat husk, piles of dried leaves and other composts, and planted scores of saplings of different botanical marvels to create the Miyawaki forest. A large signboard has been installed in an area of one kanal. The forest has been initiated. It consists of many closely spaced saplings of mostly local variety.
The idea does not suit this garden as the roots network of the tall and mature trees that exist already, has been disturbed. Locals are no longer able to jog or enjoy walks, the birds too have been scared away and the ladies now prefer to stay indoors.
In welfare societies, a public project is adopted in consultation with the community at large. No such public hearing about the likely adverse impact on this unique botanical garden has been held or invited. The much-hyped Billion Tree Tsunami is not about numbers; it has more to do with the survival rate of the gifts of nature.
(This dispatch is dedicated to the late Maali Punoo)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]