Littering has become a major issue at Margalla Hills
Life in the Margalla Hills begins to warm up just as the weather gets colder in Islamabad. On sunny days, people flock to the hills. This creates two causes for concern. First, there are only six serviced trails that cannot bear the burden of all the people visiting them. Second, these trails are poorly managed, providing PR opportunities for foreign dignitaries by having their picture taken while they collect trash. These pictures frequently end up making the rounds on Twitter.
Also, these are a family-friendly attraction in name only. Ogling, jeering and stalking make it hard for most female visitors to feel comfortable and welcome.
Saturdays and Sundays draw the biggest crowds, including school trips. Children come by the busloads. The trails are heavily littered, especially in the park near Marghazar Zoo and Daman-i-Koh.
The six trails lead to Pir Sohawa near Monal Restaurant or Daman-i-Koh. They also serve as access routes for firefighters as forest fires are frequent in the summer due to natural as well as man-made causes, ranging from local intrigue to clashes between government institutions.
Prof Dr Azizur Rehman, a regular hiker and a former chairman of the Department of Sharia and Law, at International Islamic University, Islamabad, tells The News on Sunday that more trails need to be developed to cater to the increasing demand.
“From Bhara Kahu to Bari Imam shrine, there is definitely room for more trails. Also, Trail 6 should be opened. Depriving the people of Islamabad of this means of recreation is a disservice to them,” he says.
“Currenlty, most of the trails are littered with plastic bottles, diapers and plastic packaging,” he laments.
Islamabad now houses four out of the ten top ranking universities in the country. This makes it an attractive place to study. Some of the universities are close to Margalla Hills. As part of social initiatives, students occasionally launch drives to collect litter and clean up these trails.
Tasadduq Malik, a community mobiliser at Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), says that there is a dire need for education amongst children on keeping public places clean.
He says, “We must tell our children not to litter. Here at Margalla Hills, we educate school children about the adverse effects of littering. We tell them that they should not disturb the local wildlife and greenery.”
In a video of one such recent session, children from a nearby Afghan settlement narrate what they had learnt from the IWMB teams from Margalla Hills.
“We similarly engage college and university students in an ongoing cleanliness drive. Students from Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Bahria University and IIUI actively take part in the exercise,” he says.
According to Malik, high profile dignitaries and NGO workers pick litter as well. However, he says, there is a difference between symbolic cleaning and the real work.
Prof Dr Muhammad Zaman, the founding chairman of the Department of Sociology, at the Quaid-i-Azam University, says that students from his department regularly take part in cleanliness drives for their social work assignments.
He says the students have planned another cleanliness drive at Margalla Hills that will last two weeks. He laments that the natural beauty of the area has been marred by littering and damage to local shrubbery. As a frequent trekker on Trail 5, he says: “These cleanliness drives are only a small part of the solution to a much bigger problem. Having a competent person who is right for the job can help these issues become a thing of the past.” He says Margalla Hills have deteriorated through overuse and littering. He says the damage can be reversed by spreading awareness among visitors. “We do not need international donors for this. The ambassadors who collect litter here do it for a photo-op. Pakistanis bear the ultimate responsibility to keep our mountains clean and protect our wildlife,” he concludes.
Prof Dr Muhammad Ali Shah, the QAU vice chancellor, says that the university administration encourages its students to educate the community about keeping their localities clean by distributing acknowledgement certificates amongst good performers.
According to Dr Shah, a teacher’s role is not confined to the classroom. Working towards the welfare of society off campus is a valuable teaching moment.
“Our students teach children from underprivileged areas on campus. They take part in plantation and cleanliness drives. We really appreciate the good work,” he says.
These trails are poorly managed, providing PR opportunities to foreign dignitaries by having their picture taken while they collect trash. The pictures frequently end up making the rounds on Twitter.
Although Margalla Hills is a prime spot for cleanliness efforts, cleanliness drives are also being undertaken elsewhere in the city. Capital Development Authority (CDA) and Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) have started imposing fines for littering and for wasting water. However, their system is apparently ineffective outside the settled residential sectors of Islamabad.
Most of the private housing societies have yet to take this issue seriously; only a few have suitable green spaces. Gulberg has some green spaces on its interchange on Islamabad Expressway, but it is heavily littered by visitors who mainly come from nearby areas including Ghauri Town, the largest illegal housing society in Islamabad that has little space for recreational facilities. Although this green patch was not meant for sports, some youngsters have taken to playing cricket matches here. Naval Anchorage too has preserved its green areas, which are well managed and have variety of new plants.
Since a majority of citizens in Islamabad live in housing societies away from the trails on Margalla Hills, there is a need for them to have such facilities closer to their homes.
It is quite an exertion for somebody living in DHA to drive through dense traffic on Islamabad Expressway to reach Trail 3 and then hike with whatever energy is left.
In addition, things are not simple. Tasadduq Malik works as a volunteer to mobilise the community for keeping Margallas clean. His regular job is at a corporation. He likes to educate schoolchildren and youngsters about how to deal with wildlife, which is why he spends most of his time, when not at
his office, amongst the hills.
Many people are working like Tasadduq, as volunteers. Even the IWMB chairperson Rina S Khan says she works as an unpaid volunteer. She says that there are about a hundred volunteers working to protect the National Park from ‘predators’ who threaten to turn it into Murree through illegal construction activity.
Zubair Qureshi, a senior journalist who does considerable work on local issues, says that the hills are being altered and that the entire Margalla National Park is a picture of mismanagement at best. “On one hand, the CDA has shown its inability to stop illegal constructions; on the other hand, unelected and incompetent people are calling the shots at the Climate Change Ministry and the IWMB. Future generations will pay the price of their incompetence,” he says.
The CDA had been looking after Margalla Hills until 2015 when the IWMB and local bodies were created in a hurry. Since then, the government has failed to appoint a qualified person to steer the Board in the right direction despite professors and quality researchers of environmental studies being available in almost every reputed university of the country. The Board has landed itself in controversy through constant bickering with other city institutions over petty issues instead of developing a cooperative relationship with them. It seemingly thrives on blaming other institutions for everything that goes wrong on the hills.
It is nominally under the influence of the Ministry of Climate Change. Zartaj Gul Wazir, an elected MNA, is the state minister for climate change. However, she is not taken on board on important decisions and has expressed her displeasure at this state of affairs both in private and in public. Recently, she had to cut short her stay at COP26 moot in Glasgow and return home after an altercation with an unelected person who apparently enjoys more power at the ministry than her.
Riaz Fatyana, a treasury MNA, raised this matter in the Public Accounts Committee recently.
Now that the IWMB has been formed, it needs to be made autonomous in the true spirit of the word.
Margalla Hills are not only about greenery and wildlife. The littering is not only because of the visitors. Much of the National Park area has been encroached upon resulting in hazardous commercialisation activity. Also, other than palm, most trees being planted are imported invasive species spreading respiratory diseases and harming the habitat.
Dr Rehman says that Margalla Hills are part of the identity of Islamabad. All possible care should be taken to preserve these, he says.
The writer teaches Development Support Communication at IIUI