Islamabad High Court has ordered the shutdown of Navy Club at Rawal Dam due to environmental concerns
2022 has kicked off with orders from the Islamabad High Court to restore the National Park lands and green areas in and around Islamabad.
“[I]t’s the elite who are ruining it. It’s the elite who encroach upon [public] land and then get it regularised,” Islamabad High Court Chief Justice Athar Minallah remarked on January 11.
The remarks came in a case seeking the restoration of Margalla Hills National Park area. The court ordered that the Navy Golf Club, also known as Margalla Greens Golf Club and Monal Restaurant be closed down. Pakistan Army’s claim over 8,000 acres of National Park land was declared void.
Saqib Bashir, president of the Islamabad High Court Journalists Association (IHCJA), tells The News on Sunday: “Prof Zahid Beg Mirza, an environmentalist, had challenged the excessive construction and commercial activity in the National Park area.”
A week before this verdict was handed down, the IHC had ordered the Capital Development Authority (CDA) to demolish the Navy Club also known as Skiing Club, resting on the banks of Rawal Lake. It had also ordered the CDA to take over Navy Farms for having been constructed in violation of the relevant rules and regulations.
Bashir says, “Now that the court has made the order, there is no doubt about the illegality of these structures and facilities. The court has also ordered initiation of criminal proceedings against Admiral Zafar Mehmood Abbasi, the former chief of naval staff (CNS), and other officers involved in the illegal activity.”
The IHC orders against three facilities of the Pakistan Navy came in two cases.
The first case was lodged in 2019 by Zeenat Saleem, wife of Major Sadiq Salim, against the Skiing Club. The petitioner sought relief against negative environmental impact of the facility. She already had some disputes with the navy regarding building bylaws for Navy Farms. In July 2020, the IHC ordered that the facility to be sealed. However, it allowed the navy to continue some maintenance work on about 100 modern yachts docked there.
Some other citizens had also lodged complaints with different authorities about denial of access to the park in the area where the club was built. The CDA and the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) had then issued notices warning against illegal construction of the club. These notices were largely ignored.
Several government institutions have jurisdiction in the area. The Small Dams Organisation manages the Rawal Lake. The organisation is a part of the Punjab Irrigation Department. Also, while the lake is located in Islamabad territory, its water is meant for Rawalpindi. The Forest Department looks after the land around the lake. CDA is responsible for protecting it against environmental threats. Islamabad Capital Territory’s Fisheries Department owns the fish in the lake. CDA’s Planning and Enforcement Wings are also involved.
The second case involved Margalla Hills National Park. It is claimed that land was dedicated in the area in 1910 to feed the horses and mules of the British army. The tract was then called Military Grass Cutting Farms. The Forest Department charged a lease. After Islamabad was planned and commissioned, CDA became responsible for the area. Its scenic location attracted restaurant business. The CDA officially charged a rent. Then the army laid claim to the hills, citing pre-Partition documents. The Monal Restaurant then started paying rent to the army instead of the CDA.
Meanwhile, the entire area had been declared Margalla Hills National Park for the purpose of protection against construction and commercial activities.
The Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) was formed in 2015. It was meant to be the single institution in charge of protecting and promoting the National Park.
Regarding the need for preservation of the National Park, Justice Minallah remarked, “Do you people know what you are doing to the coming generation? It is shocking. Everywhere you look in Islamabad, there is lawlessness.”
He observed that no one is allowed to as much as cut grass from the National Park.
Justice Minallah also ordered the CDA and the IWMB to work together to restore the park land and protect the natural habitat for the native flora and fauna.
Amer Ahmed Ali, the CDA chairman and chief commissioner of the federal capital, tells The News on Sunday that he informed the court that besides the navy, the army and Monal Restaurant, several ministries and departments had been violating the rules.
He said, “We will work in close coordination and in consultation with the IWMB. Let’s look at it as an opportunity to protect the Margalla Hills National Park and preserve the environment with the cooperation of all stake holders.”
“Let’s develop green economic opportunities for the locals in line with the IWMB guidelines. We should explore environmental-friendly alternative fuels for locals who have been cutting trees for firewood. The CDA is in touch with the IWMB. Any endeavour we undertake will take effect after consideration of the proposals by the IWMB,” says Amer Ahmed Ali.
Speaking exclusively to The News on Sunday, Ashtar Ausaf Ali, the former attorney general of Pakistan and counsel for the former chief of naval staff, says they are going to file an intra-court appeal against the IHC verdict. He says the Army Act prohibits mudslinging against the military and actions likely to diminish the morale of the soldiers. “Admiral Abbasi cannot be held responsible for any illegality just because he inaugurated a navy facility. If the chief justice of Pakistan opens a housing project, can he be held responsible if an illegality surfaces at a later stage?” he says.
According to Ashtar Ausaf Ali, the military personnel are part of the citizenry. He says the Skiing Club is not a commercial enterprise. He rejects reports that its membership fees were advertised on social media platforms. “There is no fee for membership of the club,” he claims. He says that it is a facility to train navy officials through water sports and rescue activities.
According to the official Pakistan Navy twitter account, the divers who rescue people and recover dead bodies from water reservoirs are stationed at this facility in Rawal Lake, usually aiding civil authorities.
Commander Manzoor Mehdi tells The News on Sunday that the facility at Rawal Lake is meant for sports and rescue activities. “Our troops and men take part in national and international sports events. At this facility we can also train people in sailing and skiing. Where can people go for these sports if not to such lakes?” he says.
According to Mehdi, Navy Farms were not purchased through government funding. He says a certain amount is deducted every month from the officers’ salaries. This goes towards the cost of land that is given to them at retirement. “This is not a commercial adventure. There has to be a body to manage this facility. So an office was created in the Naval Headquarters to manage this. It does not mean that the navy is doing some sort of business. Not a single plot is for sale. All have been allotted to officers,” he said.
“As an expert in running a ship, how will an officer feed his family upon retirement? The nature of his job does not fit with the job market. To take care of this problem, the navy runs welfare projects for its men and cadres,” he says.
Prof Azizur Rehman, a former chairman of the Sharia and Law Department at International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI), says that since the court has issued no stay order in the intra-court appeal so far, the facilities remain illegal and the activities unlawful. It is the prerogative of the court to order the CDA to bring down and seal these illegal structures.
“There is a difference between ceremonially inaugurating a facility and being systematically and officially engaged in construction of an illegal structure,” he says.
“Pakistan Navy is a credible institution. In the past it has distanced itself from the corruption case against Admiral Mansoor ul Haq. The precedent is definitely there,” he says.
According to Rehman, the armed forces need lodging facilities due to the nature of their job. They should be adequately facilitated, just not in the park.“The National Park is what we pass on to future generations. There can be no compromise on that. The court’s recent judgments are very clear and convincing,” he says. He adds that the Supreme Court has taken a clear stance on encroachments and threats to the environment.
It remains to be seen if the civic authorities of Islamabad implement the court order. An implementation committee has been set up to expedite the process.
The writer teaches development support communication at International Islamic University Islamabad. Twitter: @HassanShehzadZ Email: Hassan.firstname.lastname@example.org