I am writing this week’s column from the quiet and cool environments of Nathiagali. I arrived in this beautiful hill station the day after Eid and almost did not make it, because of the madness and mayhem caused by the heavy holiday traffic. Since my driver was away to spend the festival with his loved ones, I was forced to drive – a task that I hate to perform because of many reasons. The main cause of my reluctance to sit behind the steering wheel stems from the fact that I tend to lose my cool, when I see a delinquent nation behave obnoxiously on the road.

My childhood summers were spent at our residence in Murree and perhaps it is the golden memories of those days that has turned me into a sucker for cool pine clad hills. Although we sold the house somewhere in the 1960s to meet economic pressures, I made it a point to take some days off every year, from a hectic career, to return to the mountains with my children. I am grateful that I was able to pass on this passion to my daughters and then to my grandchildren.

We abandoned visiting Murree in the eighties because of congestion and the type of crowds that began converging on it and turned instead to Nathiagali. Nonetheless, I feel that I owe a debt to the place that provided me and my family endless days of fun and frolic. I am also grateful in all humility to the Almighty for having blessed us with the means and opportunity to do so. It is in this frame of mind that I am dedicating this week’s piece to the ‘Queen of the Hills’.

I remember hearing a serious discussion between my grandfather and his colleagues about how the mountain ridge of Murree was inching its way towards Rawalpindi. To my young mind, this was nothing short of a Doomsday scenario. In my mind’s eye, I saw roads and houses disappearing and whole chunks of the mountainside collapsing into a bottomless abyss. As I grew up, I realized that my fear was greatly justified, with the difference being that while the mountain itself wasn’t shifting, it was becoming susceptible to collapsing. This was so because of callous deforestation and uncontrolled construction, which were more than likely to have the same results as the ones in my nightmare.

I must acknowledge that despite their many failures, the PML N government has always appeared cognizant of the magnitude of such a disaster. An 1876 tree count indicated that more than 47,000 acres of the area around Murree was forested, this figure was drastically reduced in the post-independence era with the active connivance of tree cutting and construction mafias and concerned government departments. It was in 2010 however that 2,300 acres of forest were recovered in partnership with the World Wild Life Fund. According to figures released in 2010, there were 107 different housing schemes that were encroaching upon forests, seventeen out of these were halted or demolished, while the remainder were planned to be likewise treated by 2013. We are now a year across that deadline and waiting to hear if the needful has been accomplished or if the project has fallen prey to corruption and apathy.

It was in 2009 that the Punjab Chief Minister declared Murree a National Park. Consequently, construction projects approved before 2009 were allowed to be completed, while the unapproved projects were put on hold. I discovered that while this order was generally followed, some project owners with the right clout managed to circumvent the ban and continued to hack away at precious flora.

Disaster also looms large on the horizon in view of tree denuded slopes that have been burdened with concrete construction, some of which defy all laws of safety. These buildings are nothing short of death traps for their residents, as the ground they are on has become highly susceptible to sliding. This again is a manifestation of the evil nexus between the construction mafia and corrupt public offices.

The immediate need therefore, is to enforce the ban on cutting down forests and carrying out construction in and around Murree. This needs to be done now, using force if necessary, for the sake of our future generations.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.