A hill station in decay

The snow covered Thandiani mountaintop in the background  can no more be seen from a point of one's choice due to buildings like this one.
The snow covered Thandiani mountaintop in the background can no more be seen from a point of one’s choice due to buildings like this one.

By: Nasser Yousaf

guest-contributorAbbottabad. The name sounds romantic. But romantic it is no more. The small hill station, named after its first district administrator, is not even a shadow of its former glory. Sir James Abbott had been so greatly enamoured by the pristine beauty of his place of posting and temporary abode that he wrote an emotional poem in its praise.

The poem hangs on the walls in almost all offices, of whatever significance, in the district. Unfortunately, this is all that is left of Abbott’s Abbottabad, the rest is an endless workshop of concrete, filth and garbage littered all across the length of what used to be a beautiful little heaven surrounded by verdant hills in the lap of the Himalayan mountains. The officers who have displayed the poem on their walls flaunt it like a trophy, but little do they seem to care to translate the beauty of the poem on the ground.

Immediately after reaching the hilltop, one would enter a cluster of some old shops which was called the Abbottabad Bazaar. The shops had mostly been built by Hindus before the partition; quite a few of them still stand while the rest have since been razed and converted into high rising slim structures, which have badly tarnished the skyline as beheld from the vantage points. In a matter of little more than two decades, the entire hill station of Abbottabad has become one vast bazaar.

Sun peeping through dark clouds. Chinar in dark shadows
Sun peeping through dark clouds. Chinar in dark shadows

The old bungalows along the main single poplar-lined road where affluent people from the plains, mostly Peshawar, Mardan and Swabi, would spend their summers have all been replaced by clumsily designed huge plazas. The old bungalows with the wicket gates had no boundary walls as hedges were considered to be good enough in the good old days. But then that was the kind of hill station where fewer than fifty thousand people lived until the mid eighties as against more than half a million at present. In winters, the hill station would wear a deserted look, that too does not happen anymore as spiralling population in tandem with climatic changes has turned everything on its head.

What actually went wrong that brought conditions to such a state? It may not be overstating the facts to lay most of the blame at the doors of an unimaginative and indeed inept bureaucracy. There was no need for an industrial estate in Abbottabad, of whatever size and description. But one was actually conceived and built in the heart of the Abbottabad cantonment which in its initial years served as a residential compound for the Afghan refugees. A large industrial estate, among the biggest in the country, had already been planned for Haripur, at an hour’s distance from Abbottabad. All that was needed was to provide excellent transportation facilities to the labour from Abbottabad. Since it wasn’t done, 90pc of the labour force employed in the Hattar Industrial Estate is from Punjab.

The once single poplar-lined Abbottabad Road that is also part of the Silk Route, as it once was.
The once single poplar-lined Abbottabad Road that is also part of the Silk Route, as it once was.

In the recent years, the marble crushing and grinding industry has mushroomed in the small two kilometres radius industrial area in Abbottabad, with at least three dozen marble factories working round the clock. The silt and effluents from the factories has literally choked the water courses that used to carry rainwaters in the peak monsoon season. The stench from what used to be an idyllic rill, which also passes through the majestic colonial-times Burn Hall School, rises to high heavens these days.

Again there was little need for establishing a hospital at a small hill station. The hospital was like a bonanza for the small time hoteliers, medicine shops, laboratories, vendors and shopkeepers in addition to the so-called construction industry. It was with these concerns uppermost in one’s mind when one got jitters in the wake of a proposal floated by Imran Khan for the construction of a medical college on the mountaintop in Nathiagali. It may well spell the end of Nathiagali as a credible place of leisure far from the madding crowds.

Until the eighties, there were less than six general physicians in Abbottabad who would look after the health of the entire area as against more than one thousand at present. Going by the look of things, one would think as if everybody in Abbottabad is sick, and in need of urgent medical attention. With so many hundreds of doctors in business, what is really irksome is that patients with slightly serious disorders are referred to Islamabad and Peshawar, which makes a mockery of the massive infrastructure installed with taxpayers’ money.

Growing up in Abbottabad as a second home after Peshawar, one noticed something really interesting. There were very few mosques at the hill station. The shortage, nonetheless, was amply provided for by the small cemented floors under the shadows of the chinar trees as prayer mats. There was no religious friction, neither had one heard of any sects including the Wahabi brand of religion. Loose administration by the district administration has led to the proliferation of mosques for different sects in every lane and street that keep blaring out vitriol from their loudspeakers.

For most of the people who may not know, Abbottabad is by and large a cantonment area. A very small portion of the hill station is administered by the city authorities. It is also home to the country’s elite military academy. To see then all those mountains of garbage lying unattended is really frustrating. There may be so many things that may no longer be in the physical capacity of the district administration and the cantonment authorities to do, but attending to the disposal of the garbage is certainly not one of them.

And finally, the story of the old Abbottabad as a veritable hill station will come to an end with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as hills are being levelled and tunnels being built for the movement of heavy vehicles. As a student one remembers the Abbottabad of the mid eighties when the sound of a lone vehicle in a long time would feel like a loud whistling in the wilderness. Alas, that place is lost to the vicissitudes of time and the greed of its inhabitants, and of course no less to its incompetent administrators.