- The Haryana government on Wednesday got the Punjab Land Preservation (Haryana Amendment) Bill of 2019 passed in the state’s legislative assembly.
- Experts believe it could result in opening up of Aravallis for mining and real estate sector, putting in danger local ecology and possibly impact the health of millions of people living in the region. They feel the changes are so far reaching that it amount to repealing of the old law rather than an amendment.
- Citizens of Gurugram and Faridabad in Haryana have started a campaign against the move threatening not to vote in the upcoming elections, for those politicians who don’t help protect the Aravalli range.
Forests in the northern Indian state of Haryana account for just 3.59 percent of its total geographical area. And a new threat looms which could reduce this cover further as the Haryana government got the Punjab Land Preservation (Haryana Amendment) Bill of 2019 passed in the state’s legislative assembly.
The PLPA of 1900 provides legal protection to forests and trees on community lands, panchayat and municipal lands and private lands. In Haryana, the act protects non-agricultural forested lands in the Shiwaliks and Aravallis. With the Haryana amendment, environmentalists fear that much of the formerly protected land, especially the Aravalli hills, will open up for mining, construction and urbanisation.
The amendment was proposed earlier this month. On Wednesday (February 27, 2019), Haryana government got the bill passed on the last day of the budget session of the state legislative assembly. After the amendment was passed, Haryana’s Chief Minister M.L. Khattar tweeted that it is in the interest of the people of the state. The bill passed by the assembly will become a law after it is approved by the state’s Governor.
Environmentalists believe the amendment of PLPA could mark the death knell for Aravalli hills and would result in irreversible damage to local ecology. Additionally, millions living in the Delhi-NCR area, who are already battling severe levels of air pollution throughout the year, would be impacted.
A significant chunk of Haryana’s total forest area is in south Haryana which includes urban areas like the cities of Faridabad and Gurugram. The area marked by the Aravalli hills, passing through south Haryana, is the last green barrier in the Delhi-National Capital Region. It is instrumental in checking the spread of dust and sand from Rajasthan towards the Indo-Gangetic plains. It is also home to wildlife like leopards and numerous species of birds. The percentage of Haryana’s forests in comparison to its total geographical area is already lowest in the country.
“If Haryana government is successful in what it intends to do with this amendment then the Aravalli range as we know it would become a thing of the past. The whole area will be opened for the real estate sector and there will be no green barrier left for millions of people living in Delhi and Gurugram,” said Gurgaon-based forest expert Chetan Agarwal.
He explained that the PLPA Act extends (so far) “protection to forests and trees on community lands, and panchayat and municipal lands, and private lands” and “in Haryana, its specific village wise notifications have been used to protect non-agricultural forested lands in the Shiwaliks and Aravallis”. With the protection of the PLPA special notifications gone, all construction and building licences which are currently illegal will get legalised and likely result in a frenzy of tree cutting and construction in the Aravalli hills, he warned.
“About 17,000 acres in Gurugram and 10,500 acres of forested Aravallis in Faridabad will lose their PLPA protection. The provisions of this Act seem to contradict the directions of several Supreme Court orders in the Godavarman and M.C. Mehta cases,” Agarwal told Mongabay-India.
Aravallis check advancement of desert, assist water recharge
Considered among the oldest mountain ranges of the world, the Aravallis extend from Gujarat, Rajasthan up to south Haryana before finally ending as ridge area in Delhi. In Haryana specifically, the hills of the Aravalli range fall in Gurugram, Mewat, Faridabad, Palwal, Rewari, Bhiwani and Mahendragarh districts.
According to Haryana government’s forest department, the range acts as a barrier, preventing the advance of the desert towards the fertile soils of eastern Rajasthan and the Indo-Gangetic plain. It has played an important role in shaping the ecology and environment of the surrounding areas.
The forest department, while seeking interest for preparing a coffee table book on Haryana’s Aravalli range, had also noted that conservation of forests in the Aravalli range is important to conserve the water resources (water streams, seasonal rivers and water bodies) in the area.
The important water resources like Badkhal lake, Kotla lake, Ujjina lake and Dumduma lake, have dried up, noted the department’s expression of interest, which expressed the role of the range in checking the advance of desertification and in assisting water recharge in the NCR region. It added that the same is the situation of rivers in Aravallis — the Sahibi, Indravati, Dohan rivers were the important seasonal rivers flowing from Aravallis and have now become names of the past. “Unsustainable urbanisation has further aggravated the problem of depletion of water resources like natural drains and water bodies,” it mentioned.
Ecologists and environmentalists say that the Aravalli hills are important in recharge of aquifers and conservation of soil. The Haryana forest department notes that that Aravalli means “wall of stone or rocks” and this name was probably given to signify the role of this range in providing protection against the onslaught of the desert.
Amendment could mean bonanza for real estate
“Haryana government has done it without taking any suggestions from anyone and without keeping the conservation angle in mind. Haryana has a very small area under forests and a huge chunk of that is in south Gurugram. This would mean the end of Aravalli. What government is doing is beyond anyone’s understanding,” environmentalist Jitender Bhadana told Mongabay-India, voicing concerns of many environmentalists about the amendment providing an opening for indiscriminate real estate development, mining and other commercial activities in the eco-sensitive area.
Even the forest department of Haryana last year had noted that the “ecological degradation in the Aravalli region is an alarming situation” and that “increasing urbanisation in districts like Gurgaon and Faridabad, increasing population of human and cattle, injudicious use of natural resources, unscientific mining activities in the past, uncontrolled grazing and felling of trees in the recent past coupled with unfavourable climatic conditions resulted in the present state of ecological deterioration.”
“The groundwater table is decreasing day by day and in most of the region, there is an acute shortage of drinking water. Thus, the Aravalli region remains ecologically, economically and socially backward in comparison to other parts of the state,” notes the forest department.
This is not the first time that the Aravallis have come into focus. Multiple cases about protection of forests in Haryana and specifically of the Aravalli range, are going on in the Supreme Court as well as the National Green Tribunal.
In October 2018, the Supreme Court while hearing a case had expressed concern over illegal mining in the part of the Aravalli range that falls in Rajasthan. The SC had also talked about a central empowered committee report which stated that 31 hills or hillocks have vanished in the Rajasthan’s Aravalli area and observed that the disappearance of Aravalli hills in Rajasthan could be one reason for the rise in pollution levels in Delhi.
“No Aravallis No vote”
The months ahead will be crucial for the issue, with the upcoming parliamentary elections in May.
Environmental activist Bhadana said that a group of several organisations, activists and concerned citizens are already running a daily campaign ‘No Aravallis No Vote’ in Faridabad and Gurugram to sensitise citizens and ensure that politicians who seek votes for Haryana assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections, first “listen” to their concerns.
“If the Aravalli area is opened for the real estate and commercialisation then water situation in this whole region would get severely impacted. This would certainly result in difficult living conditions in the area,” said Bhadana while adding that they will seek all options including a legal route to oppose it.
The recently formed political party, Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), led by Dushyant Chautala has listed the protection of Aravalli as part of its agenda which is believed to be for wooing urban voters in Gurugram and Faridabad area.
Banner image: The issue is expected to become important for the region in upcoming elections. Photo by Save Aravali Campaign.