If Haryana has its way, the NCR’s vital groundwater recharge zone could soon make way for an amusement park, says Janani Ganesan
AN HOUR’S drive from downtown Delhi, along the Haryana border in Faridabad, lies the Bani forest, which is part of the last patch of natural green in the National Capital Region (NCR). But this 500-hectare stretch of valley may not be around for too long.
As activists focus on the rampant mining in Rajasthan’s Aravali range, its extension along the Delhi border is being thrown open to ‘development’ by the Haryana government. The concrete stretch of the road leading into the forest is growing steadily, making it easy for trucks carrying cement and bricks to enter via Mangar village.
If the government has its way, the Bani forest, which is home to the Dhau tree, will become a hotspot for mega tourism projects. Entertainment parks, like Gurgaon’s Kingdom of Dreams, could replace this stretch of the Aravalis, which serves not only as a wildlife corridor but also as a groundwater recharge zone for the NCR.
Land records reveal that property sales in the region have tripled from 42 deals between September-November 2011 to 164 between November 2011-March 2012. This coincides with the period when the Mangar Draft Development Plan 2031 was being cleared at various stages. Although it restricts people from building farmhouses, industries and hotels, it opens up the area for mega tourism projects and colleges.
“Privatisation of common village land in Gurgaon and Faridabad districts, especially those in the Aravalis, has risen in the past few years,” says Chetan Agarwal, an activist and a consultant to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). He has been independently investigating the draft plan and its repercussions.
What was once common land started getting privatised in the 1980s through a clever modus operandi: a few real estate dealers enter into an agreement to buy the common land, push a villager to file a petition in the court seeking privatisation of the common lands and then execute the agreement. “Another encroachment is by bureaucrats. All that is required is a bribe to the patwari (land registrar),” says retired forest official RP Balwan, who had served in the area. The developers hoard huge chunks of land, waiting for the price to go up. The news of the development plan has fuelled the price rise further. From Rs 7-Rs 13 lakh per acre in 2010, the price of the land in the area has now more than doubled to an average of Rs 30 lakh an acre.
‘This area is the last refuge of all trees and shrubs that are not to be found anywhere else in Delhi,’ says ecologist Ghazala
“In Nimod village, an agent has promised to buy 240 acres of common land, including some in the Aravali, for Rs 2 lakh per acre. A 10 percent down payment has already been made,” says Agarwal.
During the latter half of 2011, the draft plan moved quickly up the bureaucratic ladder and is expected to be notified soon. Amid these stages, an exchange of letters between the Forest Department and various officials of the Department of Town Planning (DTP), suggests that the former had cautioned the planners more than once to exclude the forest region. The District Commissioner had written to the DTP as well asking that some portion of the forest be spared as water reserve.
The letters, obtained through RTI, suggest that the DTP’s office had claimed the villagers did not want any restrictions put on the sale of their land as it would affect their monetary interests. A heated response from the Forest Department reads: “The applicants from the villages as cited in your letter appear to be motivated by real estate developers and not farmers.”
Mangar resident Fateh Singh Harsana agrees. “The villagers have sold off their land in greed. We want the Bani to be protected,” he says. Village Development Committee Secretary Sunil Harsana adds, “Even though excessive tree-cutting has happened in the surrounding areas, the Bani has remained intact. We believe that the Bani harms people who harm it.”
But the minutes of the state-level committee meeting betrays the sentiment. “Since Bani is on private land, we should not put any restrictions on it.” The committee is the final authority on the plan before the chief minister gives his approval. As of now, the forest land will remain part of the plan. The reason cited is that field visits are time-consuming and changes, if any, could be made later. But once the plan is notified, why will the builders wait for the survey to be over to start felling trees?
In 2009, a Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court (SC) had recommended that the Haryana government procure Bani, keeping its conservation value in mind. This is not the only SC order that is being overlooked. In 2002, the SC had banned boring within 5 km of the Aravali in this region, noting the area’s importance, based on a report of the Central Ground Water Board.
Opening up this area for construction activities will not only exploit this water, but will also suck in water from nearby areas. Delhi’s water problems have already reached alarming levels. The hills also serve as a catchment area for various lakes in the region such as Dhauj lake, Surajkund lake, Badhkal lake, and Peacock lake in Faridabad and Damdama lake in Gurgaon.
While a 1992 SC order banned non-forest activity in the Aravali region of Rajasthan and Gurgaon, Faridabad got left out. The MoEF did send a letter, pointing out this lapse to the government, asking it to not include the forest areas for development. But the letter went unheeded.
The master plan of Sohna, also adjacent to the Aravalis, is under revision and it is feared that it would open the area for development, including the catchment of the last remaining perennial lake in Gurgaon.
THE BANI forest had already once been thrown open to ‘development’ in 2008, for setting up of a European Technology Park. Work was stopped by the Forest Department, which said the project should be located at least half a km from the Bani. This fuelled the interest of activists like Pradip Krishen, filmmaker and author of Trees of Delhi, who had been studying the region’s ecology. “I saw a grasshopper in the region that is in spectacularly the same colour as the rock,” he says. “This could have happened only over centuries of evolution. We should protect such rich ecosystems.”
Delhi-based ecologist Ghazala Shahabuddin adds, “This area is the last refuge of all trees and shrubs that are not to be found anywhere else in Delhi. If we are serious about conservation, it is important to protect and help in regeneration of this region abundant with important species.”
But the disregard for this sentiment is best captured in a Google search for Aravali hills. The second featured website following the Wikipedia page is aravalihills.com, a site dedicated not to the ecology of the region but to real estate in the area.
Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.