Thousands of acres of uncultivable forested hills in Haryana, Gurgaon and Faridabad face the same prospect

Two decades ago when Sunil’s parents sold off 25 acres of their family’s share of land in the Mangar forests of Faridabad, they and other villagers thought the buyers were fools to buy it up because they were assured that they could continue to use it for grazing cattle and firewood. Today, 25-year-old polio-stricken Sunil has dropped all his other dreams and moves with lightning speed on his crutch, across the forest, in government offices and with fellow activists “to save the forests from a determined State government that wants to open it for colonisation.”

What he does not know is that it is not only his village and its 740 acres of sacred Mangar Bani grove, where for centuries not even a twig was cut, that is under threat, but thousands of acres of gair mumkin pahar (uncultivable forested hills) in Gurgaon and Faridabad face the same prospect ever since they were designated as agricultural zones under the Mangar Bani development plan - 2031, the Sohna master plan - 2031 and the Gurgaon Manesar Master plan - 2031 — drawn up last year.

The land of some 25 villages from these master plans fall in the Aravalli hills, which are not only a natural recharge zone for several fresh water lakes in the vicinity, but are identified by the Central Ground Water Board as the last source for recharging depleting ground water reserves that are already inadequate to meet the drinking water needs of the population of Delhi, Gurgaon and Faridabad.

‘Identify forest areas’

In 1996 and then in July 2011, the Supreme Court directed all States to “identify areas which are forests irrespective of whether they are so notified, recognised or classified under any law” and irrespective of whether they were once forests and now stand denuded, degraded or cleared for other use.

Despite the efforts of civil society and environment activists, who have pointed out that these natural forests come under the definition of forests and need to be protected as deemed forests, this has not been done. On the other hand, Haryana’s town planning department is pushing through its real estate zoning plans on these natural forests by designating them as agricultural zones. Result: The Aravalli gair mumkin pahar, which are not recorded as forests to be protected under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, or any other protective mechanism, so far, have been bought up by realtors, politicians, bureaucrats in anticipation of the urbanisation as envisaged in the new master plans.

Most of these lands have changed hands several times over and though villagers like Sunil got a pittance for it, now they command upwards of Rs. 1 crore an acre.

In the last one year, hundreds of trees have been cut by real estate companies, with large land banks, by paying small fine ranging from Rs. 500 to Rs. 2000 a tree, so that its land use can be changed using the plea that there is no tree cover on it.

Sunil points to a couple of farmhouses that have come up in the Mangar area through this method.

Field officers admit that once a land is designated as agriculture zone, changing its land use to commercial or residential is easily justified, and it is easy to colonise.

In the Mangar Bani plan for instance, the Aravalli hills have been included as an ‘agricultural zone,’ which permits 22 kinds of real estate activities, including mega recreational zones. Mangar village alone has 3595 acres of gair mumkin pahar and nine Aravalli villages form part of the plan.

About one-third of the Aravalli hills are protected under Section 4 and 5 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) 1900 and, as Haryana’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests C.R. Jotriwal told The Hindu, the government presently recognises only these areas as forests. Some area that comes under the Aravalli Plantation Scheme is also protected.

In December 2011, the Deputy Commissioner of Faridabad, after a site visit, opposed the Mangar development plan and recommended that the whole of the Aravali gair mumkin pahar zone should be excluded from the agriculture zone and delineated as a water recharge and forest conservation zone. He also pointed out that it is critical to preserve this area because the district of Faridabad depends on groundwater for its domestic water supply and had recommended that the entire gair mumkin pahar-deemed forests of Aravallis should be brought under PLPA to protect it. These suggestions were not accepted.

Geo-referenced map

In May, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOeF), acting on a letter by the Mission Gurgaon Development — a group of conservationists — directed the State government to put the Mangar Bani plan in abeyance until a geo-referenced map of all natural and recorded forests of the area is prepared in accordance with the Supreme Court judgment. Though the State government has appointed a nodal officer for doing this, no district has so far identified the ‘forest’ areas apart from those already existing in revenue records. Field officers say that they are hampered, as the government has not clarified which areas have to be identified and mapped.

Meanwhile, as Sarvdaman Oberoi of Mission Gurgaon has pointed out in another letter to the Chief Secretary and the MoEF, “It seems that the Haryana government and the Forest Department are hiding behind procedural delays and ambiguities, as real estate speculators buy up the Aravalli hills in anticipation.” Says he, “Although the Mangar Bani plan has been put on hold by the MoEF, the government is going ahead with the Sohna and Gurgaon Manesar plans, which are equally damaging for the Aravallis.”

The Aravalli hills are not only rich in floral biodiversity, but are an important wildlife corridor between the Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary in Delhi and the Rajasthan Aravallis. They are also the catchment for several lakes like Badhkal, Surajkund, Dhauj and Peacock, some of which have turned seasonal in the last decade.