'Aravallis to Be Kept Out of National Conservation Zone to Further Corporate Interests'
Image Courtesy: Hindustan Times
Over a thousand acres of ecologically sensitive land in the Aravallis is likely to be left out of the National Conservation Zone (NCZ) by Manohar Lal Khattar-led Haryana government. Approximately, 1126.8 acres of this land – spread across the Aravallis – fall under the ambit of Faridabad's Kot villages. Haryana government is likely to go by the 1992 notification of the Ministry of Environment that, while defining the Aravalis, limits them only to Gurugram in Haryana, and Alwar in Rajasthan. Going by the notification, Aravali stretches in Faridabad or Jhajjar will not be considered as part of the NCZ.
If the area were to be made a part of the conservation zone, it would mean that all construction activity will be banned in the region. The decision is likely to be based on the preliminary ground-truthing report of the zone for the NCR regional master plan 2021, which was initiated in 2014. The exercise was carried out to match data with the features on the ground. Although the fate of this land is yet to be decided, activists and environmentalists believe that the region is being kept out deliberately by the government to further corporate interests in the region.
Previously, an exclusive report by the Business Standard had revealed that Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Group has acquired over 400 acres of land in Haryana’s Aravalli region in Faridabad district. The transactions for large-scale forest land took place between 2014 and 2016. According to the report, the acquired land was “common land” or shamlat deh. Criticising the Haryana government, the Supreme court in 2011 had directed that all common land, including shamlat deh, should be returned to the panchayats.
The 3,000 acres of land across the Kot villages is also a part of this uncultivable common land.
Speaking to NewsClick, Nitin Sethi, the journalist formerly associated with the Business Standard and who broke the story for the daily, said, "To my understanding, keeping Kot out of NCZ is one more step towards allowing private vested interests, such as of the Patanjali group, to illegally take over parts of the Aravalli hilly forestlands.”
Kumar Sambhav of the Land Conflict Watch said, “There are huge commercial interests in the Aravallis land. There are dubious deals [taking place] in the area to privatise and commercialise common lands. The investigation by the Business Standard was only tip of the iceberg. There has been a lot of dilly-dallying in the incorporation of the Aravallis in the National Conservation Zone.”
“There is a systematic dilution of the laws such as the Punjab Land Preservation Act (1990) which protects the common land from commercial activity, it has to be understood in the context of business interests. Otherwise, a noteworthy question to ask is why would a government be keen on amending this law? The Aravallis are the green lungs of the city and also a water conversation zone; therefore, assume a huge environmental significance."
The government is using a two-pronged approach. While trying to leave the Kot villages out of the NCZ, it is cracking down on the legal protection the land holds. The government is gearing up for a re-election and on its poll agenda is also a massive push for the PLPA act to be amended. In February this year, it had proposed opening up thousands of acres in the mountain ranges for real estate development and mining. The amendment still remains pending as the Supreme Court had sharply rebuked the Haryana government for trying to “destroy the forest”. The top court had barred any action under the amended Act. The notification issued on February 1, 2019, ordered taking up of consolidation of 31,184 acres of land under the provisions of East Punjab Holdings (Consolidation and Prevention of Fragmentation) Act, 1948 and the Punjab Village Common Land (Regulation) Act, 1961. According to the 1948 Act, compulsory consolidation can be done only of agricultural holdings. However, the new order says that consolidation is being done for the purpose of “better cultivation”.
The residents in Gurugram are rallying behind the cause to save the Aravallis and to refute this argument of the state government. Speaking to NewsClick, Shalini, a resident, said, "We were told by Rao Narbir Singh – the environment minister of the state – that once the BJP is back in power post the Assembly elections, the process to repeal PLPA will be in full swing as it is restricting the development in the region, which is a baseless argument. We have seen trees being chopped off overnight in the region and boundary walls coming up out of nowhere."
Despite no finality on the status of the recognition of the land as the NCZ, the Haryana government has initiated the land consolidation process, this has led the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to take note of the situation. The NGT has ordered the Forest and Revenue Departments of Haryana to file a “joint factual and action taken report” relating to the ongoing consolidation of land in Faridabad’s Kot village by September 29. The directive was issued after a petition filed by Gurugram-based activist, Col. (Retd.) SS Oberoi, who stated that the consolidation process in Kot will adversely affect the pattern of land use. “Therefore, non-forestry activities – including consolidation of land – cannot be permitted here,” he said.
The petition also highlighted discrepancies in the land consolidation process. It states that 816 acres of land in Kot are notified under special sections 4 and 5 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act (1900), giving them legal forest status with protection under the Forest Conservation Act (1980). However, the other 1,586 acres of land being consolidated in the region is regenerated forest, restored under the Aravalli Plantation Project. Additionally 1,000-1,200 acres, falls under the land use category of ‘gair mumkin pahad’ (uncultivable land), whose conservation status is yet to be decided.
Not just industrial activity, the government is also planning a 10-acre lake and a “leopard safari” alongside a forest on about 1,000 acres of land spread over several villages, including Gairatpur Bas. The lake will come up at Gairatpur Bas in the Aravalli’s foothills, years after the natural lake at Damdama dried up over the course of time. The Forest Department has long been planning to develop the natural depression area of Gairatpur Bas — about 10km from Rajiv Chowk on the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway — as a proper lake by making it a permanent source of water.
The move is being declared as an adverse ecological decision. Resident Puneeta Chadha said, "We were told to leave the state if we have any issues by the environment minister, but all that we're trying to highlight here is the huge environmental cost that the region will have to pay for commercial interests. This could mean a complete replenishment of our water systems putting at stake the lives of our children.” The ecological significance of the Aravallis is also being made a huge electoral plank by the Congress Party in a bid to corner the BJP. The party has openly come out in support of the movement to save the Aravallis. Residents of the city have drafted a charter of demands. With a major focus on the protection of the Aravallis, the prominent resident groups have also highlighted other issues ranging from urban planning, environment, water and waste. The citizens are planning action across the state with the upcoming week-long global climate strikes from September 20 to 27.
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