November 22, 2018
The lush Aravalli range of Rajasthan over a decade ago. Photo by Nataraja/Wikimedia Commons.

HOW SHOULD a country, blessed with mountain ranges like the Aravallis that are over two billion years old, treat them? Spread across four states, the 692-km-long Aravalli range is key in preventing the adjoining desert from eating into inhabited areas near the mountains.

However, illegal miners, real estate sharks and encroachers are ravaging the range and none of the state governments have stepped in to stop the destruction.

The tall and short peaks and the ridges of the Aravallis rise up to a maximum of 5,650 feet seemingly kissing the clouds as they run through the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi.

The Supreme Court ordered the Government of Rajasthan to stop illegal mining activity in a very sensitive area of 115.35 hectares of the Aravalli range that had a fragile ecosystem in late October. The court gave the state 48 hours to ensure this.

Judges expressed shock when a court-appointed Central Empowerment Committee told them that 31 hill ranges of the Aravallis in Rajasthan had vanished due to illegal quarrying.

The committee said that illegal mining was prevalent in as many as 15 districts of Rajasthan with the worst affected areas being Alwar, Dungarpur and Sikar. When it informed the bench that the state was earning Rs. 50 billion (Rs. 5000 crore) annually as royalty from mining companies, the bench remarked that that money would well be used to look after the health of people in Delhi as pollution was killing people.

Without mincing words, the court said that the state had allowed mining operators to illegally mine the hills at the cost of nature. “For the sake of a few mining companies, you are putting the life of lakhs of people in danger,”

The Aravallis date back to millions of years when a pre-Indian sub-continent collided with the mainland Eurasian Plate. Carbon dating has shown that copper and other metals mined in the ranges date back to at least 5th century BC.

Fourteen years ago, in 2004, a Supreme Court order had banned mining in many parts of the hill ranges, but it was blatantly violated by illegal miners with the connivance of the government that turned a blind eye. The systematic plunder of the Aravallis continued despite numerous government reports documenting it. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report earlier this year had highlighted that 98.87 lakh metric tonnes of minerals were excavated illegally in the years between 2011 and 2017.

A hill fort in Rajasthan, in Aravallis. Source: Yogesh Jain/Wikimedia Commons.

The ranges are considered to be among the oldest in the world. Decades ago, they were punctuated with lush forests that supported wildlife in a thriving ecosystem. There is documented evidence of leopards, striped hyenas, golden jackals, nilgais, palm civets, wild pigs, rhesus macaque, pea fowls and Indian crested porcupines thriving there. Many of them have vanished. Rivers like Banas, Luni, Sahibi and Sakhi, originated in the Aravallis. The rivers are now dead.

Most of the forest wealth has disappeared. Large denuded stretches eloquently lie there as evidence. Chandra Bhushan, deputy director, Centre for Science and Environment, said, “The preservation of the Aravallis is extremely important as it defines the watershed for the National Capital Region. As it got degraded, we saw water levels fall. If we protect the Aravallis, we will also have less sand storms and dust coming in from the Rajasthan desert as the range will act as a barrier.”

The mountain range has been a goldmine for miners as it is rich in minerals and natural resources. It has rich reserves of rose-coloured quartz, zinc, copper, lead, rock phosphate, gypsum, marble, soapstone and silica sand, popularly known in the construction industry as Badarpur sand. The mining mafia operated illegally digging out stones to be cut into slabs and ground to gravel and sand to feed the hungry ever-expanding real estate in the National Capital Region of Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida, Faridabad and Ghaziabad.

Can we revive the eco-system of the ancient Aravallis?

Nature will definitely regenerate in the Aravallis in some form or the other if left alone. In Haryana for example, if large remaining swathes of the hill ranges in Gurugram and Faridabad are designated as forest areas, the state’s government will no longer be able to allow real estate companies to plunder the area.

Chetan Agarwal, a forest environment analyst, said that Haryana needs to protect the Aravallis as it is the only area with some forest cover. The rest of the state has seen massive conversion of land into residential or commercial space. Haryana has only 3.59 percent of forest cover which is the lowest in the country, he said.

Apart from being a barrier stopping the desert from growing, the Aravallis also function as a water recharger. Manu Bhatnagar, principal director, Natural Heritage Division, INTACH, points out: “The Aravalli range will have to be saved as it is crucial for recharging water. Its forests can attract rain and end the water scarcity in those areas. It can cool the atmosphere. We have to preserve the Aravallis in its pristine form.”

In the past, Haryana has attempted to ignore, delay and dilute the definition and extent of the Natural Conservation Zones (NCZ) in the Aravallis. Removing the NCZ restriction allows for redrawing the zoning maps of the Aravallis so that land could be given to miners or real estate companies. Bhatnagar said that as the land value in Faridabad and Gurugram was exploding, the land mafia and the real estate companies were desperate to capture it and the political establishment and bureaucracy was supporting it.

A history of destruction

Sixty years ago most of the area in the hill ranges were village common land and used by villagers for grazing. But in the seventies, revenue authorities facilitated a dubious privatisation and real estate agents started buying parcels of Aravalli land at very cheap rates hoping to sell it off later when urbanisation kicks in. That’s when the damage began.

In 2004, the Supreme Court had banned mining in notified areas of the Aravallis. In May 2009, it extended the ban to an area of 448 km stretching across Faridabad, Gurugram and Mewat districts of Haryana. But by then extensive damage had been done, especially in Faridabad. That is why there are lakes in areas where there were none as the natural aquifer was punctured by miners who dug deep. Now, the mining activities have shifted to Rajasthan.

Lawyer and environmental activist M.C. Mehta, who was a party to numerous cases dealing with the Aravallis, said, “As the Haryana government was not keen on enforcing court orders, violations continued in the Aravallis. In the mid-nineties, the Supreme Court had directed that a wall be erected around 7,777 hectares of the Aravalli ranges to stop encroachment. The wall did come up, but was soon breached to aid land grab. Even hazardous waste was dumped in forest areas.”

A study by the Wildlife Institute of India said that the Aravallis was the most “degraded” forest range in India as most of the indigenous plant species had disappeared and development activities were destroying what remained.

The shrinking habitat in the Aravallis forced wild animals like leopards, hyenas and nilgais to venture into areas outside the forest in search of food and water.

In the midst of these ranges in Faridabad is Mangar Bani, a sacred forest. As it is revered, it has been protected by villagers. In 2016, the Haryana government notified it as a ‘no construction zone’ giving in to public pressure. However, it is yet to be officially declared as a forest.

Mangar Bani sacred forest in Aravallis. Source: Ramesh Menon.

This foot-dragging raises questions about the will to identify Aravallis as forests, and conserve them. “The biggest enemies of the forest are real estate sharks. If they could, they would not even spare a sacred forest,” said Sunil Harsana, an activist who works on the conservation of the Aravallis.

The case of Kant Enclave

It may sound impossible to demolish a residential colony with about 30 odd houses and permanently restrict construction in over 1,600 plots spread over 425 acres. But this is exactly what the Supreme Court has ordered in September of this year, reinforcing earlier judgments dating to 2008 and 1995-1998 for the same colony. It ordered all 30 odd existing houses in the Kant Enclave in Faridabad to be demolished as it was illegally constructed in a protected forest zone of the Aravalli ranges in Faridabad in Haryana. The court said that, “The Town & Country Department in apparent collusion with R. Kant & Co. effectively led a very large number of people up the garden path.” Therefore it ordered compensation for the plots and houses

Over thirty years ago, R. Kant and Company, a real estate firm, purchased large swathes of privatised Aravalli hill, common land of Anangpur village, on the border of Delhi.  Subsequently, the firm got the Haryana government to grant it exemption to construct a film studio and thereafter a residential complex, spread over 425 acres. It was christened Kant Enclave. It was a prime location only one kilometre from the Delhi border. An added attraction was the verdant location in the Aravallis. It was also near Surajkund and Badkal lakes. It attracted luminaries like a former chief justice of India, a former Member of Parliament, a well-known cricketer, a retired World Bank official, a serving IT commissioner, army officers, bureaucrats, politicians and senior lawyers who invested in plots. A Supreme Court order has now said that Kant Enclave should be demolished as it was on forest land.

Reviving a forest in Gurugram

In the sprawling concrete jungle of Gurugram, there seem to be more buildings than trees. Scores of glitzy skyscrapers dot the landscape. What is missing is a green cover. But there is a veritable island of green in a small corner on the Gurugram-Delhi border. It is a restored and regenerating forest that stretches across 380 acres and is called the Aravalli Biodiversity Park. Today, it is a natural abode of birds, mammals, reptiles, butterflies, insects, medicinal plants and trees. Birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts visit it daily not to just breathe fresh air but to calmly absorb the intricacies of nature.

Ten years ago, this patch of green was just barren land. Around 2009, the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon declared it a biodiversity park and partnered with civil society, corporates and residents to plant trees and restore the forest. Today, it has nearly 200 species of plants, 183 species of birds, numerous species of reptiles and insects.

Residents along with volunteers from iamgurgaon, a citizen action group involved in the conservation of the Aravallis were assisted by ecologists to create a self-sustaining Aravalli forest on a barren piece of land that was left behind after mining was stopped by the Supreme Court. The forest now hosts over 38 species of butterflies that are rarely seen. Over 450 host plants have been planted to attract them.

Vijay Dhasmana, curator of the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, said, “We wanted to bring the concept of bringing the jungle into the city. We brought over 200 species of tree saplings that were close to extinction in Haryana and planted it here. Today, all of them grow without any demand for water as nature takes care of it. How foolish is it to destroy a regenerated forest in the heart of a city which was a mining site?”

Added Latika Thukral, co-founder of iamgurgaon, “The Aravallis are seen as vacant land that cannot be cultivated. So the concept is to sell it to private hands and make some money. They are not realising that it would impact our lives if the ranges are lost or flattened out. Forests are important community spaces that help urbanites connect from all walks of life, come together and enjoy the fruits of nature. We cannot let it be destroyed.”

Before (left) and after (right) area being restored in Aravalli Biodiversity Park. Source Vijay Dhasmana.

However, all the work in creating a lung for Gurugram will be destroyed soon if a plan of the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) comes through. It proposes to cut a highway through the Aravalli Biodiversity Park forest area impacting and destroying one of third of it. It will also disturb the fragile regenerating ecology of the park.

Environmentalist and author Pradip Krishen wondered why there was a need to destroy this forest that has been regenerated and restored by a partnership between the municipal corporation with the people of the area. Sourajeet, a birdwatcher, pointed out that it’s the best woodland forest bird habitat it Gurugram district, with 183 species of birds, including several rare and threatened birds and should be protected at all costs.

Though the park now falls under the description of a forest, it has not been designated as such. This loophole is enough for NHAI to plough a highway through it. It is a real fear that protesters are nursing but they are determined not to let it happen. Mass protests and campaigns in offices and schools are on to fight back to allow the green lung to live.

Map of the proposed highway through Aravalli Biodiversity Park.

“The government seems hell bent on destroying the park as land value has shot up so much,” points out photographer Aditya Arya, who has over the years documented the beauty of the Aravallis. Land always generates money and opportunities for the construction lobby and no one wants to let it go. We all have to fight to get our right to see natural beauty around us, protect the few patches of forests and wildlife habitat and to breathe better air.”

This article was first published on Mongabay India.