Mountain and the Mafia: How the Aravallis vanished in the NCR

In a devious sleight of hand, the Aravallis, the oldest mountain formation in the world, have vanished from the National Capital Region

The Aravalli mountains are turning to dust as trees and vegetation are cleared and stones crushed to make concrete
The Aravalli mountains are turning to dust as trees and vegetation are cleared and stones crushed to make concrete

Rashme Sehgal

The draft Regional Plan 2041 for the National Capital Region, which gives a detailed break-up of the natural conservation zones, has excluded the Aravalli hills and all the tributaries of the Yamuna, Ganga, Kali, Hindon and Sahbi, the animal sanctuaries and water bodies such as Badkal lake, Surajkund, Damdama lake (all three in Haryana) and Siliserh lake in Rajasthan.

They have also removed the cap on construction which in these conservation zones had been fixed at 0.5 per cent of the land and formed an integral part of the existing 2021 plan.

What this means is that the powerful real estate lobby operating in Gurugram, Faridabad and Mewat— including Swami Ramdev’s Patanjali Group, M3M, which has the distinction of having built the Trump Towers in Gurugram, with a starting price of Rs 8.5 crore and IREO, all of whom have allegedly acquired panchayati land (Gair Mumkin Pahar) and forest land at throwaway prices—can now develop these properties for commercial and residential purposes. This despite a Supreme Court order of 7 April 2022 that all panchayati land should be restored to the panchayats.

Gurugram-based forest analyst Chetan Agarwal points out, “The real estate lobby operating in the NCR (National Capital Region) has built up land banks on which they could not build earlier because of the restriction of 0.5 per cent on construction in natural conservation zones. Many of these real estate developers had [already] acquired both forest and panchayati land. The removal of the cap will now allow them to unleash a building spree, especially since the Regional Plan 2041 has shrunk the Natural Conservation Zone and deleted the zoning regulations.”

What’s disturbing is that the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), which had opposed these land use changes and whose job it is to conserve our environment, has given its seal of approval and come up with their own formulation to justify these changes.

‘If the government had not allowed farm houses to come up in the Aravallis, it would have helped access a huge bank of water that might have solved the NCR’s water crisis’

Seeking cover in the thickets of opaque language, the MoEF stated in its letter dated 11 July 2022 that ‘The description (of forests) covers all statutory recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise for the purpose of section 2 (1) of the Forest Conservation Act. The term “forest land” occurring in section 2 of the Act will not only include forest as understood in the dictionary sense but also area recorded as forests in government records irrespective of ownership.’

Agarwal takes objection to this, asking what the “dictionary meaning” alludes to, because Haryana has not identified a single acre as forest as per the dictionary meaning from 1996. A large part of the Aravallis is not notified as forest and so this entire area can be exploited, he said. What impact will this have on the NCR region and north India as a whole, given acute cold conditions, made worse by high levels of smog and air pollution?

The MoEF is well aware that Delhi has emerged as the most polluted capital in the world. A recent study by the Centre for Science and Environment has shown Ghaziabad, Noida, Delhi, Gurugram and Faridabad to be the most polluted cities in north India.

The lush green forests of the Aravallis have provided a green lung to many of these north Indian cities. They also stand as a crucial natural barrier against desertification, checking the spread of the Thar desert towards the NCR.

Parts of Delhi face an acute shortage of drinking water, especially in summer. The groundwater level is so low that handpumps 
yield nothing
Parts of Delhi face an acute shortage of drinking water, especially in summer. The groundwater level is so low that handpumps yield nothing

Bilal Habib, a scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) points out the galloping pace at which forest cover in the northern states is depleting. “In Haryana and Punjab, it is down to three per cent of its geographical area. In Delhi, it remains at 13 per cent but is also getting degraded at a rapid rate,” said Habib.

If this rate of degradation continues and the Aravallis lose even more vegetative cover, the plants in this region will lose their resilience. The WII has come up with a recent report titled, ‘Mapping the Aravallis in Haryana with Reference to Key Wildlife Species.’

Bilal points out, “In our study in Haryana, we identified 15 to 20 areas that were critical for wildlife. These need to be looked after in order to preserve biological diversity.”

Even more importantly, the Aravallis must be protected because they are a natural water recharge zone for our ground water systems, said Shashank Shekhar, assistant professor of geology in Delhi University.

Between 1975 and 2019, the Aravallis lost 4,452 sq km of green cover, an area equal to 40 per cent of Delhi. In the next 40 years, 16,360 sq km will be turned to concrete

Prof. Vikram Soni, environmental physicist, who has worked extensively on water issues in the NCR has demonstrated through experiments how the Delhi Ridge (which is part of the Aravallis) acts as a natural underground reservoir for mineral water.

Soni said, “This mineral water is worth crores of rupees and if the government had not allowed farmhouses to come up in the Aravallis, it would have helped access a huge reserve of water that might have solved the NCR’s water crisis. Already so much damage has been done to the air and water in the NCR. The Aravallis are forests and under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, they cannot be destroyed.”

“Already, this government has destroyed our Himalayas. Now they are hell-bent on destroying the Aravallis which are becoming barren, devoid of all vegetation,” he added.

Illegal mining is another grave problem in the Aravallis. Although the Supreme Court has ordered the suspension of all mining activities in the NCR, some amount of illegal mining continues with the connivance of the police.

Warnings by environmentalists have gone unheeded. The fact is that the Aravallis act as a water divider between the Indus basin and the Ganga basin and its green cover influences rainfall patterns across north-east India. This should have played a key role in governmental thinking. Sadly, this has not been the case.

The draft Regional Plan 2041 was supposed to have been approved in the board meeting on 5 July 2022. Up until then, the MoEF had not given its consent to these sweeping changes, but by 11 July, the ministry did an about turn and went along with the changes with regard to exclusion of nomenclature and elimination of all zoning regulations. Incidentally, the agenda of the 5th July meeting had come under so much criticism that it was decided to put it in cold storage till a more opportune moment.

The government obviously believes the start of 2023 is a good time to push it through. Already they have received several thousand emails (2,590 at the time of writing these lines) opposing this decision but it seems to have had little impact. Activists believe the real estate lobby is hand-in-glove with politicians who are determined to push these ill-conceived changes through.

The Aravalli range stretches from Champaner in Gujarat through Rajasthan upto Delhi. In Haryana, it is spread across Mahendragarh, Rewari, Faridabad, Gurugram and Mewat.

At the turn of the last century, 80 per cent of this range was covered with natural forests. Between 1975- 2019, it has lost 4,452 sq km of vegetation, an area that is equal to 40 per cent of Delhi. Experts predict that in the next 40 years, a total of 16,360 sq km will have been converted to housing colonies.

Experts point to the example of Joshimath and how the inability of the ruling class to follow scientific advice has resulted in the “sinking” of our Himalayan cities, causing tremendous hardship and loss of lives and livelihoods.

If the government had followed the advice of the scientific community which had warned against indiscriminate construction of large power projects, road tunnelling and construction, several hundred citizens would not have been forced to abandon their homes in this freezing cold. As the government proceeds to move towards the destruction of another lifeline that will adversely affect the lives of millions of people, clearly that matters little or not at all.

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