A pond filled with dirty water dense with koondar [water reed] growth near Chakwal.—Photo by writer
THE broad trunk of the pipal tree that stands at the side of the bank of a pond, some eight kilometres to the west of Chakwal city, beckons passersby from the distance. But when one reaches the pond, one is greeted by dirty, brackish water dense with koondar [water reed] growth. There are a few waterfowls swimming about, but it is nowhere near the oasis it ought to be.
A decade ago this pond, called banh in local parlance, brimmed with clean water. Boys from the surrounding villages used to swim here, and cattle herders would bring their animals for a drink. The old pipal tree was a sought-after resting spot during the scorching summer days that Punjab experiences. Once, the banh was where the village girls used to go to fetch drinking water, and that is where courting couples met, too.
Today, the area under the tree is littered with the waste of sheep and goats and the banks of the banh are eroding fast. No boy or girl finds anything of interest in the spot, and the thick shade provided by the pipal and banyan trees benefits no one.
On the right side of this particular pond, there’s a vast tract of land — 86 kanals, according to revenue department officials. A large patch of it is freshly ploughed, and through the furrows a cement pitch is visible. That suggests that once there was a cricket pitch here; volleyball nets nearby also indicate that this spot used to be used as a playground by the youngsters in the adjacent village.
This sloping piece of land is called the rorh; a banh and a rorh are always located side by side, the idea being that water seeping through the rorh, having been filtered clean by the earth, would collect in the banh.
The area’s banhs all have venerable trees growing around them. They were built by the Hindus and Sikhs who used to be in the majority in most of the Potohar region’s villages before Partition. The Potohar region did not have a permanent source of water such as a river or a canal network, and thus villagers used to build banhs and rorhs which would serve as reservoirs for water used for drinking or irrigation. The rorhs were used as playgrounds and were often the place where the crops would be threshed.
“In their first settling of land matters, which the locals refer to as the Bandobast, the British rulers declared banhs and rorhs Shamlaat Mufeed-i-Aam, or common land, along with graveyards, pathways, water channels and pastures,” says 77-year-old Chaudhry Shahnawaz Khan, retired after 41 years of service as a patwari and girdawar [the government officials responsible for the maintenance of land records and the demarcation of boundaries, etc].
“According to the law, any land declared common could only be used for the purpose that had been given to it. Land declared Mufeed-i-Aam could neither be encroached upon nor used for any individual’s personal use.”
“Owners of land in the villages left some land for the common use of the whole village, like graveyards, banhs, rorhs and pathways,” corroborates senior advocate Syed Ziaul Hassan Zaidi of the Chakwal Bar Association. “Later, the British declared them Shamlaat Mufeed-i-Aam.”
Now, though, this type of land is facing two types of threats: neglect and apathy, and land-grabbing. Influential people are encroaching upon common land, and other villagers are too fearful to challenge them.
“These banhs are of historical and cultural importance and they urgently need to be preserved,” says Professor Naeem Shahid, the head of the Urdu department at Government Post Graduate College, Chakwal. “We are heading towards a severe water crisis in the future. I remember when proclamations used to be made in the villages that the men need to collect at the banh to take part in a cleanliness drive. These banhs used to be cleaned every year.”
But now, these historical pools are dying. “With the preservation of these water bodies, the water level could be increased in the area where they are located,” the professor adds.
“Land matters are being run according to the settlement of 1940,” says advocate Zaidi. “The British used to repeat the exercise every 40 years, but since 1940 we have been unable to do it again. We badly need a new settlement to redress land problems.”
It cannot be ascertained how much common land has been encroached upon or taken over, but there is no doubt that a new settlement would reveal shocking facts.
“The status of Shamlaat Mufeed-i-Aam cannot be changed, but due to the connivance of patwaris and girdawars, the influential men in the villages are encroaching upon this category of land,” admits Chakwal assistant commissioner Mussawar Ahmed Khan Niazi.
“If any case comes to our notice, we take action according to the law and legal action is under way against the land-grabbers who recently encroached upon common land near Chakwal,” he adds. “A Pandora’s box would be opened if decisive action was taken against the land-grabbers who have encroached upon village common land.
Very Good , well written! Let us go further to save and retain loving features of our fading culture, Nabeel.