ARAVALLI FORESTS OF HARYANA IN GRAVE DANGER
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ARAVALLI BACHAO CITIZENS MOVEMENT – CAMPAIGN NOTE
The state of Haryana currently has the lowest forest cover in India. While the forest cover is a mere 3.62%, the effective legally protected forest area is only about 2%. This is much less than the Haryana forest policy target of 20% forest and tree cover.
Forest cover in the state is mostly concentrated in the Aravalli hills in the south and Shiwaliks in north Haryana.
Why are the Aravalli Forests Important?
- Aravalli forests act as green lungs for the National Capital Region (NCR), whose cities have the worst air quality in the world.
- Running north to south, Aravallis are our shield against desertification.
- High levels of cracks and fissures in the Aravalli hills makes it a superior zone for recharging ground water in the National Capital Region, where the extraction is 300% more than the recharge.
- People living in highly concrete cities of Gurgaon, Faridabad and Delhi use the Aravallis as a recreational zone for bird & animal watching, walking, running, cycling and rock climbing. The forests also provide quiet places for people to find joy and healing in nature.
- The natural ecosystem of the Aravallis being home to the last remaining forests in south Haryana are a critical wildlife habitat & corridor and a biodiversity hotspot in the National Capital Region with 400+ species of native trees, shrubs and herbs; 8 types of forest eco-systems uniquely adapted to the dry conditions; 200+ native & migratory bird species and wildlife such as leopards, hyenas, jackals, neelgais, porcupines, mongoose, civet cats as well as reptiles and insects.
Current Issues Threatening the Survival of the Aravallis
- Aravallis have around 60,000 acres of forests notified under the special sections 4 and section 5 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) of 1900, which are treated as forest under Supreme Court orders. However, the amendments made by the Haryana government to the PLPA in February 2019 will de-notify most of these areas opening them up for real estate development and urbanisation.
- Another 50,000 acres of Aravallis are without any legal forest protection as the Haryana government has refused to give them deemed forest status for the last 2 decades.
Non-Renewal of Expired PLPA Notifications
The 118-year-old Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) of 1900 is meant to protect areas ‘not notified’ under the Indian Forest Act as reserve or protected forests in the states of Haryana and Punjab. In Haryana, the PLPA extends protection to forests and trees on private lands, community lands, panchayat and municipal lands in the uncultivable hills of the Aravallis in the south and Shiwaliks in the northern parts of the state. Forest areas notified as per special sections 4 and section 5 under the PLPA in Haryana (which restricts breaking of land, construction etc) amount to about 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares) i.e. 33% of the effective forest cover in the state. About 60,000 acres of these PLPA protected forests are in the Aravalli hills in South Haryana and 10,000 plus acres are in the Shiwalik hills around Chandigarh.
The Aravalli areas notified under PLPA have been treated as forests following Supreme Court judgements in 2002 and 2004, reiterated in 2008 and 2009 (MC Mehta case), and again clarified in 2018 (Kant Enclave matter). Supreme Court orders in the MC Mehta case are only about the special sections 4 and 5 PLPA notifications which restricts breaking of land, construction etc in the Aravallis. The General section 4 notification of the PLPA which only regulates tree felling is applicable in 9 districts in Haryana and has no restriction on agriculture or construction.
The PLPA notifications are usually for 15-30 years and were earlier renewed on expiry. There are about 130 notifications under PLPA in the Aravalli region out of which 115 have already lapsed i.e. 88% of the PLPA notifications have lapsed. Gurgaon district has 16,930 acres of Aravalli forests notified under PLPA in 38 villages. Out of these, notifications in 36 villages have expired. Faridabad district has around 10,400 acres of Aravalli forests in 17 villages – notifications for about half of these have expired.
Haryana government has made no move so far to protect the Aravallis by renewal of these PLPA notifications. These notifications were extended only due to the order of the Supreme Court in 2002. This means that these areas are only being treated as forests due to the orders of the Supreme Court.
Many Aravalli Forests have No Protection under any Forest Law
Around 50,000 acres of the Aravalli forests in Haryana do not have protection of the PLPA special sections 4 and 5 notifications (which restricts breaking of land, construction etc in forest areas). These areas include most of the Mangar Bani sacred forest and the 350 acres of Gurgaon’s city forest – the Aravalli Biodiversity Park created by the citizens. These areas need to be declared as deemed protected forests following Supreme Court (SC) orders in the Godavarman case in 1996, and the Lafarge judgement in 2011.
Passing of PLPA Amendment Bill by Haryana State Govt
In a move that has shocked the citizens and the Supreme Court, the Haryana State Assembly on 27th February 2019 passed a bill to amend the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), 1900. This amended bill seeks to make the act totally redundant in the state as it will open up 33% of the area currently treated as forest land (under PLPA) in Haryana for urbanisation, mining and real estate development. The honourable Supreme Court was aghast at the amendment bill and has directed a stay order on its implementation.
The process of passing of the bill raises many questions:
- The forest department does not seem to have been consulted in this critical matter which will adversely affect 33% of the effective protected forest land in the state.
- There has been no public consultation on a bill that will negatively impact people’s ‘Right to Life’ as enshrined in the Constitution of India.
Key Provisions of the PLPA Amended Bill
This amended bill is essentially a repeal of the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), which seeks to make the act totally redundant in Haryana.
- Retrospective effect – The retrospective provision (since 1966) nullifies all notifications made under the act since 1966. The bill comes into force from 1 Nov 1966, the date of formation of the state of Haryana, thus nullifying all actions under the act since the date of formation of the state (Para 1(2)).
- Blanket exclusion of urban areas – The amendment bill has blanket provisions that will make the PLPA redundant in current and future urban areas. The provisions of the PLPA will not apply to all urban areas in the state including master plan areas and municipal areas (Para 4, amending 3A of act, and Para 10, adding sec 23 to the act).
- Discretionary power to exclude – The state government may notify by any act, order or statute, that the PLPA shall not apply on any specified area. (Para 4 (a) (viii)). As a result, any land notified under the act in the past, present and also in the future in the state can be exempted by a simple government order – notwithstanding orders of the Supreme Court, the Forest Conservation Act, or any similar legislation.
- Discretionary power to rescind – Any notification under this act can be rescinded by the state (Para 8) i.e. revoked, cancelled or repealed.
- Discretionary power to exempt – Any area can be exempted by the state government (Para 9).
- Limits notifications to 30 years – All notifications under the PLPA will be limited to 30 years, and after expiry the regulations, restrictions or prohibitions will cease to exist. This subverts the Supreme Court direction that PLPA notifications will continue to have force even if expired.
Implications of Amending the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), 1900
In the 1970s, the Aravalli common lands of a few villages around Delhi were privatised through a dubious process by local revenue authorities, which is contested in courts. Builders, investors, miners and babus have got large holdings of privatised Aravalli lands which they could not construct or build on as a result of the PLPA protection. However, the amended PLPA bill now says that all urban areas will be excluded from the PLPA and says that any area that has been notified in the past, present or even the future can be exempted and excluded from the provisions of this act, thereby removing the PLPA forest tag and opening up these areas to real estate and mining. This means that the government will be able to sell licences to real estate builders in the Aravalli hill areas in Gurgaon and Faridabad districts.
The amended bill will benefit the real estate sector at the cost of forests, wildlife, water security, air quality and the health and well-being of millions of men, women and children living in NCR cities including our future generations.
Implications – for the Forests
This act is nothing but the antithesis of the Forest Conservation Act and may be called the Forest Destruction Act. The amended bill subverts the directions of the Supreme Court to protect the Aravallis and treat PLPA areas as forests. Through this amendment, the entire Aravallis and many parts of Shiwaliks will become open to mining, real estate and urbanisation.
- Forest areas notified under special sections 4 and 5 of the PLPA in Haryana amount to 74,000 acres (30,000 hectares) i.e. 33% of the effective forest land in the state. Almost all of these will lose their forest tag due to the amendment and become open to mining, urbanisation and real estate development.
- The implication of the bill is that there will be no ‘legal’ forests left in the Aravallis of Gurgaon and Faridabad and the rest of south Haryana leading to massive forest loss and environment degradation. This government move seeks to open almost 60,000 plus acres of PLPA protected Aravalli forests to real estate and mining. Additionally, at great risk of destruction are around 50,000 acres of Aravalli forests in Haryana that do not currently have protection of the PLPA or any other forest law. This means that effectively the entire Aravalli range in South Haryana will get impacted by this government move to amend the PLPA.
- The amendment will exclude urban areas in the entire state from the protection of the PLPA. For Gurgaon and Faridabad, PLPA will become non-applicable in urban areas where master plans have been passed and open up the entire zone of the Aravalli forests for real estate development. At complete risk of destruction are 16,000 plus acres of forests in Gurgaon district and 10,000 plus acres in Faridabad district.
- This amendment will also negatively impact 10,000 plus acres of forests in the Shiwalik hills around Chandigarh in Panchkula district.
Implications – for the Air Quality
Many children and adult residents of the NCR, infamous for being one of the most polluted areas in India already face severe respiratory problems and other health issues due to the extremely poor air quality. Opening up the Aravalli forests, which act as the green lungs of this region for real estate development will further worsen the air pollution problem and put citizen’s health and quality of life at stake.
Implications – for the Ground Water
Moreover, allowing rampant construction activity in the Aravallis which are critical for recharging our ground water will negatively impact water security in this region where the extraction is 300% more than the recharge. In Gurgaon city alone, the ground water is depleting at the rate of 5 feet per year.
Who Stands to Gain from the PLPA Amendment?
- Rich influential landsharks holding privatised common lands in the Aravallis
- A few real estate developers
- Benami land holders
- Black money investors
Who Stands to Lose?
- Our green lungs and our health
- Our water security
- Our shield against desertification
- Our connect with nature
- A secure future for our children
- Their home and habitat
- Their corridor between Asola Bhatti sanctuary in Delhi and Sariska in Rajasthan
Citizen’s Asks from the Haryana Government
- Increasing forest cover of Haryana – Haryana government should set up a task force to make a roadmap to reach 5% LEGAL forest cover by 2024 and 10% by 2030. At present our forest cover is only 3.62% whereas the Haryana forest policy target is of 20% forest and tree cover.
- All Aravallis should be kept off limits to real estate – Aravalli forests cover less than 10% of Gurgaon and South Haryana and less than 2% of the entire state of Haryana. The Aravallis must be protected as a home for wildlife and for the other critical environmental benefits these forests provide in terms of being the green lungs of NCR, water recharge zone and our shield against desertification. Protecting Aravallis from real estate is a revenue neutral decision for the government. The extent of licences proposed to be given in the Aravallis can easily be given in the plain areas of Gurgaon and Faridabad, without any revenue loss to the government, but with massive environmental benefits to the citizens and wildlife of the region.
- Withdraw the PLPA amendment – Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), 1900 should be kept as it is and NOT amended. Punjab Land Preservation (Haryana Amendment) Bill, 2019 passed by the Haryana State Assembly on 27th February 2019 to amend the PLPA should be withdrawn. Even the honourable Supreme Court has been aghast at the amendment bill and has directed a stay order on its implementation on 1st March 2019. Haryana Government must consult with experts within the government and outside it, about its real implications and withdraw the amendment which as it stands only seeks to benefit the real estate sector but negatively impacts the forests, wildlife, water security, air quality and harms the health and well-being of millions of men, women and children, including future generations.
- Re-notify expired PLPA notifications – All Aravalli forest areas around Gurgaon, Faridabad and the rest of Haryana which are protected under PLPA and for which notifications have expired should be re-notified at the earliest. About 88% of the PLPA notifications have already lapsed and these areas are currently being only treated as forests due to orders of the honourable Supreme Court. The Punjab government re-notified 21,000 acres of Shivalik forests around Chandigarh under the PLPA in 2018. There is a pressing need for the Haryana government to re-notify lapsed notifications under the PLPA.
- Declare all Aravallis as deemed forest – The honourable Supreme Court has repeatedly directed the state of Haryana to identify forests as per dictionary meaning as directed in the Godavarman (1996) and Lafarge (2011) judgments of the Supreme Court, in 2012, 2014 and later. Haryana government needs to identify forests as per dictionary meaning immediately. All remaining Aravalli areas such as Mangar Bani, Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon and other areas that have not been notified as deemed forests under the PLPA should also be brought under the protection of the law.
- Retain entire Aravallis in Haryana in the Natural Conservation Zone – The Regional Plan 2021 passed by the NCR Planning Board has zoned the entire Aravallis in the NCR and South Haryana as a Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ), putting limits on construction of 0.5%. Real estate is not a permitted purpose in the NCZ. The Haryana sub regional plan too does the same. The press has reported Haryana Town and Country Department’s incredible claim that there are no legal Aravallis in Haryana outside Gurgaon and Mewat, thus making 10,400 plus acres of Aravallis in Faridabad non-existent. This is based on a faulty view that there are no ‘legal’ Aravallis in Haryana outside the purview of the MoEF notification of 7.5.1992, and thereby claiming that there are no Aravallis outside Gurgaon and Mewat. All the Aravalli forests in South Haryana should be retained in the NCZ and not be excluded through the ground truthing exercise.
- Restoring Aravalli commonlands to public ownership – Order a judicial enquiry into how the Aravallis which were commonlands were privatised and restore them to public ownership.
- Zoning important wildlife corridors in the Aravallis as a wildlife sanctuary – All the Aravalli areas from Asola, Anangpur, Sarai Khwaja, Mewla Maharajpur, Ankhir, Badkhal, down to Kot, Mangar Bani till Roj ka Gujar and Damdama lake should be zoned as a wild life sanctuary, given their importance as an important wildlife habitat and corridor in the region.
There has to be a balance between real estate development needs and needs of the citizens for a healthy environment. The government cannot be swayed by the interests of any one stakeholder. It is the responsibility of the state to ensure that people’s Right to Life (Article 21 of the Constitution of India) is fully protected, which includes citizen’s right to clean air and water security. Further, the Directive Principles of the State Policy, Constitution of India (Article 48A) directs the state to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife. We hope that the Haryana government fulfills its responsibility and takes the necessary steps to protect the Aravalli forests for the well-being of the present and the future generations.
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