India’s oldest hill range (also the world’s oldest fold mountains) has a profound impact on the climate of not just the National Capital Region (NCR), but the entire northwest of the subcontinent. It is from this perspective that the Supreme Court’s landmark June 7 directive on demolishing encroachments located in the Aravallis must be perceived.
Making no distinction between swanky farmhouses and slums, the apex court has passed order after order against the illegal encroachment of protected lands in the Aravallis in recent years. Obviously tired of excuses by the municipal authorities – from fear of retaliation by the encroachers to the on-going pandemic – the SC bench held the Superintendent of Police, Faridabad, and the Secretary (Forests) of Haryana personally responsible for the demolitions, who are to furnish an action taken report in six weeks.
The point here is that the SC saw no room for compromise or concession regardless of the financial status of the encroachers, on a matter involving forest land. A similar approach to forest cover across the country, particularly in ecologically fragile zones, is called for. The Aravallis are a particularly interesting case, as considerable portions of the protected land are in private hands. Indeed, they are an object lesson in the privatisation of forest cover.
The importance of the Aravallis, the ‘lungs of the NCR’ and its bulwark against the encroaching Thar desert, cannot be understated. Environmentalist-author Pranay Lal wrote, “the mountain range gently guides the attenuated monsoon clouds eastwards towards Shimla and Nainital, thus helping nurture the sub-Himalayan rivers and feeding the north Indian plains. In the winter months, it protects the fertile alluvial river valleys (the para-Indus and Gangetic) from the assault of cold westerly winds from Central Asia”.
For decades, miners, real estate developers and encroachers have conducted a vicious assault on the Aravallis, levelling whole hills or stripping them of forest and soil cover and decimating wildlife and plant biodiversity – all with the active encouragement of state governments. A 2018 report by a SC-appointed panel found a quarter of the Aravalli range had been lost due to illegal mining.
Abysmal track record
Haryana’s track record in this respect has been particularly reprehensible, regardless of the party in power. Like his predecessors, incumbent Chief Minister M L Khattar has repeatedly sought to dilute environment protection laws and render the Aravallis even more vulnerable. In 2019, Khattar had amended protective statutes to free up 63,000 acres of the Aravallis for construction and mining, while legitimising existing illegal structures. The SC promptly nullified the amendment.
Shockingly, the Khattar government recently petitioned the SC to reopen mining in the Aravallis, so as to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic – a practice that the apex court had banned in 2002 and again in 2009, in view of its ghastly environmental impact.
Even as mining was banned, the land mafia and real estate lobby began a systematic takeover of the Aravallis and carved up forests and hills for farmhouses and roads. For instance, during the court-directed demolition of illegal farmhouses last year, it was found that a whole hillock and thousands of trees had been destroyed to create an access road.
Khemka had red-flagged issue
Flagrant abuse of land consolidation norms – an issue first highlighted by Haryana IAS officer Ashok Khemka over a decade ago – led to profiteering in the shamilat deh or common lands of Aravalli villages. The land passed to the village community and individuals sold off their undivided shares. The buyers comprised Delhi’s most influential and high-profile denizens and farmhouses mushroomed.
How did they justify evasion of environmental norms, given that they were in possession of lands deemed gair mukim pahad or uncultivable hills, on which non-forest activity was not permitted? Unaccountably, a loophole in the form of the term ‘gair mukim farmhouse’ had appeared in the state’s revenue records, enabling them to circumvent the protective provisions of the Aravalli Notification of 1992. That clever nomenclature was reversed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) last year, rendering buildings, roads, cutting of trees and electrification illegal.
The Haryana government has fought tooth and nail against the inclusion of the most encroached portion of the Aravallis under the definition of a Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ). In 2020, it was pulled up by the Punjab & Haryana High Court for delay in notifying the NCZ.
If the government is keen to push ahead with ‘development at any cost’, environmental activists and citizens groups are equally determined to push back. In 2018, under the directions of the court, an entire housing development spanning 425 acres in the Aravallis was demolished. Earlier this year, action was taken against the Ansal Group’s 1,200-acre Aravalli Retreat.
The one big question is the ownership of the land – much of it remains in private hands, even if the owners cannot legally use it for non-forest activity. If the land transactions were illegal in the first place, surely the revenue officials who legitimised the sales must be held accountable?
The story is being repeated in state after state, where unchecked and often illegal construction takes its toll of forest cover, hills and water bodies, with the collusion of local-level authorities. If the Aravallis have been decimated right under the nose of national media and the apex court, how much worse off must the rest of India be?
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author