Paradise threatened by cement plant

Ayaz Amir

In the foothills of the Salt Range lies the magical valley of Kahoon, stretching from Kallar Kahar in the west to the magnificent ruins of the ancient Hindu temples at Katas in the east. At the time of creation, according to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva shed a tear which fell at Kataksha to form a pool of immeasurable depth and limitless water. The pool is still there, its depth plumbed by no one and its water said to be limitless. All this is on the verge of being destroyed by a huge cement plant (900 crores) being erected by one of Pakistan’s biggest corporate entities, the Nishat Group (headed by Mian Mansha), in the very heart of Kahoon next to the village of Khairpur. An idyllic valley lost in time has overnight turned into a place torn between fear and desperation.

The road to this infernal project has been paved with lies and false promises. The Mansha people bought some of the land stealthily in connivance with the Chakwal revenue department, many of the mutation documents riddled with inaccuracies and illegalities. In March came an order under the Punjab Land Acquisition Act allowing for the forcible acquisition of land at nominal prices. The villagers were never for compensation. Where would they go without the land they and their forefathers had tilled for generations? And how long would their monetary compensation last? But seeing there was no resisting the Mansha juggernaut, they said they would settle for the factory if they were given alternate land. The villagers, reduced to desperation, blocked the Kallar Kahar-Choa Saidan Shah Road. Predictably, the police intervened and got the road cleared.

It was an unequal fight from the start, with the villagers outgunned and out-manoeuvred. The villagers are on their own. Local influentials while generous with sympathy haven’t provided any practical help. If this project gets underway, lifting clay from Chak Khushi and digging up the surrounding hills for their precious haul of limestone, then goodbye to this valley. And as if one cement plant wasn’t enough, two more are in the planning stage, one in Khokar Bala, the other a few miles to the east near Wahoola. Ah, but isn’t cement necessary for development? It is but not at the cost of a fragile environment. Don’t cement plants provide employment? As far as locals are concerned, yes they do to a small number of chowkidars, gardeners, truck drivers and tea-stall vendors. Is this fair compensation for the damage that will be caused to the environment, agriculture and the health of the local population?

Kahoon has produced many senior army officers, amongst them two former governors, Amir Gulistan Janjua and Lt Gen Safdar. It has produced senior bureaucrats. What the hell are all these guys doing? Shouldn’t they organise a meeting, get all military Chakwalis together and think about ways and means of protecting their priceless heritage? Industrialisation is all very well as a catchword and slogan but it must be balanced against the knowledge that Pakistan’s industrial class has been woefully short of anything resembling a social conscience. Why leave Mian Mansha out of this begging bowl? I am sure he is a public-spirited person who will consider the all too likely consequences of this project. The media, my own tribe, the human rights fraternity, NGOs, all those concerned about the environment should visit Kahoon and see this catastrophe-in-the-making. Ayaz, a columnist for Dawn, writes for THT from Islamabad.