My parents are from the Potohar region and have spent a better part of their life in and around Rawalpindi. They reminisce about how green the region of their childhood was; both Potohar and Rawalpindi. Now, fast forward to my generation. I still remember the vast open spaces of Pindi Cantonment where we played as children in the evenings. These spaces not only facilitated the densely populated localities of Tench Bhatta and Bakra mandi, but were especially valuable to cricketers from Murree road.

In all probability, these spaces were owned by the Defence Ministry. The miseries of Pindities began due to a population explosion; an ailment from which the entire country now suffers, and the reversal of the decision to shift GHQ to Islamabad where a sector had already been allocated to it. The reversal of the decision was due to the public and environmentalists (read elite) pressure as they contended that it would disturb the environment of Islamabad, especially along the Margalla hills. A lot of hue and cry was raised through the electronic and print media.

In short, environmentalists won in Islamabad, but no one came to the Pindites’ help. It is widely considered that Pindi is just a village, and its denizens not influential or educated enough to assess what this reversal of the GHQ decision meant for the city. The environmental cost of retaining GHQ in Rawalpindi was not calculated at all: presently, all the open spaces have been replaced with multistory residences; even existing parks have been squeezed to make space for new buildings; trees have been cut down to widen roads to accommodate ever increasing traffic; and increased traffic congestion in turn has provided easy targets to terrorists.

With resources provided by the federal government combined with GHQ resources, a new cantonment could have been developed in any of the suitable places around Rawalpindi. This could have been a win-win situation for everyone: a separate cantonment for the army and open spaces and parks gifted to the citizens of Rawalpindi by the army.

The environmental degradation of the Potohar region has been further exacerbated by the mushrooming growth of housing societies around Rawalpindi with a few being populated and the rest unlikely to see any development for many years to come. All these housing societies represent horizontal expansion while the need of the hour is vertical expansion to conserve land. For developing housing societies, local flora and fauna were mercilessly destroyed, and the land was denuded of its natural beauty. How many trees were cut so that they should have been replaced by the housing societies? Of this there is no count. Even the trees planted by the housing societies are not indigenous to the Potohar region.

The full environmental impact of this horizontal urbanisation could only be assessed through proper scientific studies, but the human experience of inhabitation is disturbing. The general population of Rawalpindi is in a fix as to where to go for a weekend outing or even for an evening walk. A few parks in Rawalpindi were probably sufficient for the local public a couple of decades ago but now the population of Rawalpindi is bursting at its seams. There are no public spaces for its ever growing population.

So what is the immediate solution to this environmental degradation and space crisis? There could be several possible solutions. Everybody wants to leave a legacy and there are several big housing societies around Rawalpindi. If we can have Ayub Park, why can’t we have a public park developed and maintained by any of the big housing societies?Similarly, the army might be holding land around Fateh Jhang or Golra which could be converted into a public park on the pattern of Race Course Park in Lahore. Finally, it is the duty of the provincial government to provide parks for its people and the Rawalpindi administration has failed badly in catering to this need of its citizens. It is high time that the people of Rawalpindi demand parks for themselves, for their children and for a healthier, better future.

Furthermore, this pattern of shrinking spaces and environmental degradation is not confined to the Potohar region but is obvious all over the country. Therefore, there is a need to take macro decisions by the provincial and federal government to control the wanton waste of land and destruction of local flora and fauna through planned vertical expansion. Amongst other factors, the lack of parks and sporting facilities has resulted in ill health; in overeating and obsessively watching television for recreational needs. This leads to obesity, disease, lethargy and families devoid of leisure in good, interactive, low-cost spaces. Finally, if youthful energy is not constructively channeled through activities such as sports galas, cricket, football etc, then there are many others waiting to prey on their time and tap into their pent up energy for their own nefarious designs.

The writer is an engineer and research scholar.