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Shahida Kausar Farooq: the environmental crusader

Shahida Kausar Farooq: the environmental crusader

August 18 has been officially declared as the National Plantation Day. Nationwide, August 18 last was celebrated as such for the first time in Pakistan. It marks a milestone in the country’s history of environmental protection and a personal victory for Shahida Kausar Farooq who has been tenaciously campaigning for it. Shahida Farooq is the chairperson of an NGO devoted to environment and public health, Subh-e-Nau (New Dawn). She has been involved, along with her family of two sons and a daughter, for over two decades in active work as an environmentalist and social activist. She is also the Chief Editor of a monthly magazine Subh-e-Nau Pakistan, being published from Islamabad for the past six years. Shahida is the recipient of Media Women Journalist Award 2005 for Environmental Journalism.

Planting trees and protecting them has been Shahida’s cause célèbre for ever since she can remember. For years, she has tried to convince the federal authorities of the significance of a National Plantation Day, more pertinent in her view than Valentine’s Day or Mother’s/Father’s Day that are celebrated with such fervour. “Imagine if even fourcrore out of a population of 16 crores plant a tree each in a single day!” says Shahida, who has also been awarded the Mayor of Karachi Award for 2004 for planting 5,000 indigenous trees at the Safari Park in Karachi.
Shahida loves trees with a passion and says it’s a sin to cut a tree. She informs that during rains, a single tree can store 2.5 lac litres of water. Her son Jawad, who holds a Master’s degree in Environmental Management, says that 80% of diseases, from the most common to the most complex, are related to the environment. The solution lies in increasing the forest cover and tackling the timber mafia. In Pakistan, the forest cover is 3%, whereas it should be 25% in order to stem global warming. As a result of Subh-e-Nau’s campaign ‘Cut duty, not trees’, the Federal Cabinet approved the policy on decreasing duty on imported wood as a measure to save our forests in 2004.
Popularly recognised as the ‘the lady who plants trees’, Shahida spares no one in this drive. She convinced the former Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to plant a kachnar (an indigenous tree) in the PM house instead of arucaria proposed by CDA during the annual plantation drive. She argued with the former President Pervez Musharraf that if his voters could spend so much on his portraits (during 2002 Referendum) why couldn’t they plant a tree, which would cost much less? Shahida even sent copies of Al-Gore’s famous book on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, for the President and Prime Minister to read. Shahida also got the members of Sindh Assembly to plant trees around the parliament building in Karachi. She introduced the ‘Adopt a Nursery’ scheme, converting all the green belts which were until then dumping areas for garbage and have now become means of livelihood for many, and go a long way in reducing the city’s pollution. It goes to Subh-e-Nau’s credit that 64 parks were adopted by the community under the ‘Adopt a Park’ scheme, with the City District Government of Karachi.
Planting of right trees is as important as not cutting the trees, is Shahida’s strong opinion, advocating the plantation of indigenous trees suited to our eco-system. She held a press conference recently in Karachi to criticise the city government for planting some one million conocarpus trees all over the city. The imported alien species would soon cause pollen and seasonal allergies among the people of Karachi, fears Shahida. Similarly, she laments the unwise decision of planting paper mulberry trees in Islamabad as well as palm trees in Lahore and Islamabad. But, at the same time, Shahida heartily congratulated the Federal Minister for Environment Hameedullah Jan Afridi when Pakistan beat India to make it to the Guinness Book of World Record for planting over 500,000 mangrove plants in the Open Plantation Race Day at Keti Bunder, near Thatta in Sindh. Shahida, however, cautioned that survival of saplings is more important than national or world records as saplings die after the plantation day is observed each year.

It might be difficult to believe that Shahida Kausar Farooq holds a simple B.A. degree. Her sensitivity towards the environment and her keen interest in sports led her to become, first, a member of KMC’s Beautification Committee, and later, Special Advisor for Parks and Sports to the Sindh Minister of Local Governments, who happened to be Dr. Farooq Sattar. As she worked in a voluntary capacity, it gave her considerable freedom to tread on political toes and vested interests thereby getting things actually done which made a difference. She would set off with her staff to visit parks after Fajr prayers and discovered that some parks on which crores of rupees were supposed to have been spent had, in reality, not even received the fertiliser or manure.
Similarly in sports, Shahida fought against vitriolic criticism to get the mega project of a women’s gymnasium in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal area of Karachi scrapped. It was a five crore rupees project on which Rs 1.5 crore had already been spent. She argued that in a conservative locality where most of the houses measured 120 square yards, not many women were likely to come to the gym for swimming or a workout. She feared it would eventually be turned into a gymkhana, inaccessible to poor women. Braving Ardeshir Cowasjee’s label of  ‘mad woman’, she finally got the structure down as she was convinced that maintaining the small projects well was far more important than launching mega projects which were not sustainable and ended up as white elephants.
A keen sportsperson herself, Shahida took some pioneering initiatives which included promotion and support of Davis Cuppers Aqeel Khan and Nomi Qamar since the age of 14 years. She has promoted women’s sports in the country and organised more than 40 international, national and local tennis events all over Pakistan. Shahida’s daughter is a national tennis champion and son, Jawad, is an international tennis coach.
An acknowledged public speaker, an environmental militant, a social activist, Shahida has been successful in getting a number of bills and acts passed at the provincial government level which are being pursued at the national level. The Sindh Trees and Parks Act was passed in 1998 — the assent for which was obtained from the then-Governor Sindh Mohammadmian Soomro. This legislation is the first of its kind in the country and is aimed at protection of plantations and forests in urban areas.
As a result of her active lobbying, Shahida also succeeded in getting the Municipal Emergency Act 1998 passed by the Sindh Assembly, following which a municipal emergency was imposed in Karachi for three months. The bill aimed at focusing on the dire situation of basic municipal services rather than on expensive non-sustainable projects. Choked drains because of polythene bags, roads in dilapidated conditions, mixing of water and sewerage pipelines are some of the reasons which called for such an emergency. Consequently, Shahida also conceived and planned the “Long Life Roads Project”.

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