He hears and heeds the trees

By Ardeshir Cowasjee                Dawn, 06 Dec, 2009

The planet we live on is insignificant in the universal scheme, and parts of it will always be ruled over largely by the ignorant and those who are significant only because of their capability to do immense damage. They heed neither the elements nor the environment.

There is of course the rare bird. Queen Anne of England once asked an honest courtier what the cost would be were she to include London’s Green Park within the precincts of her palace. She was told: ‘A monarchy, Madam, a monarchy.’ We in Pakistan are now fortunate to have a chief justice of our country who can hear and heed trees and who understands the environment.

In March 2006, I wrote to the Sindh chief secretary beseeching him not to allow a Karachi park to be destroyed and its trees chopped down so that a car parking ‘plaza’ could be built on its grounds. A copy was sent to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The CJP hearing the cry of the park and its trees took suo motu notice, converted my letter into a petition and directed the chief secretary ‘to ensure that no tree of Jehangir Park is cut down nor the park used for any other purpose pending decision on the petition’. The city government shortly thereafter abandoned its construction plans. I sent a brief note of thanks and appreciation to Chief Justice Chaudhry: ‘You heard the trees. You heard the people. Thank you.’

Of late this good judge who cares for the environment of his country has heard a goodly number of Lahore’s trees and come to their rescue. The plight of the trees that line Lahore’s Canal Road dates back to 2006, when the Gujrat Chaudhries held sway in the province of Punjab. The Canal Bank road was to be widened from Dharampura to Thokar Niaz Beg at an approximate cost of Rs700m and the felling of some 2,000 trees. This was opposed by a number of Lahore-based NGOs, by professional and educational institutions and by many caring citizens of Lahore. They all got together and formed the Lahore Bachao Tehreek (LBT), and raised their joint voices against this anti-environmental and highly damaging project.

Chief Justice Chaudhry heard them, summoned the Punjab chief secretary and received from him an undertaking that the law would be followed in this matter and that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) would be conducted. In the summer of 2007, the Punjab Environment Protection Agency, a tool of the provincial government, against all norms and rules, gave its approval to the project. The LBT, led by its able counsel, Syed Mansoor Ali Shah (since elevated to the bench of the Lahore High Court) challenged the approval. The case remains pending in the Lahore High Court.

On Nov 9, 2009, it was reported that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had given his approval to go ahead with the Canal Bank road widening project, this time round at a cost of billions of rupees, Rs3.15bn to be exact, and the felling of thousands of fully grown trees, many over 40 years old — a virtual forest.

LBT on Nov 18 addressed a letter to Chief Justice Chaudhry inter alia pleading: ‘The Lahore Bachao Tehreek looks to the honourable chief justice and prays that notice be taken of the Government of Punjab’s attempt to run a fresh project through a previously granted EIA. The Lahore Bachao Tehreek has written to the Chief Minister of the Punjab requesting him to make public the plan of the Government of Punjab Project so that its characteristics can be ascertained.

‘We also point out that, around the world, it is taken almost for granted that modern cities progress by investing in public transport, not by wasting money on road infrastructure that will be used only by a small automobile elite. We point out that, while there are over eight million people in Lahore, there are over 1.8 million registered motor vehicles yet less than 1,000 buses. The Government of Punjab will betray its mandate, strike against the cause of the common man and permanently destroy one of Lahore’s characteristic environmental and ecological heritage sites if it is allowed to proceed with the Government of Punjab Project without following the provisions of the PEPA and conducting an EIA.’

The fear of all was that the tree cutting would commence immediately after the Eid holidays, a provincial tree-culling exercise to follow the national annual cattle cull.

My young friend and leading light of the LBT, Rafay Alam, has it that when Chief Justice Chaudhry was recently in Lahore he must have heard the trees whispering to him for he once again took suo motu notice of this enhanced project (Rs3.5bn from Rs700m with some extra 5,000 trees thrown in) which would wipe out 60 acres of public parkland and summoned to appear in his court in Islamabad on Dec 1 representatives of the Punjab government. Sitting with Justices Mian Shakirullah Jan and Tariq Pervez the chief justice directed that no trees be felled, questioned the viability of the road widening project and directed the government authorities to submit on Dec 21 the plans and designs for the project.

On Dec 2, a citizen of Lahore, seeing Rafay walk past his store, came out to convey his thanks for the LBT action and his appreciation of the chief justice’s gesture in taking up the matter suo motu. As said Rafay, when things like this happen to you on the street, it means you’re part of something larger.

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