The year 2015 has proved to be a mixed bag for the Aravallis with the issues of identification of forest areas and ground truthing of natural conservation zones (NCZs) proving to be contentious. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has also been seeking clarification from the Haryana government on how the green lung can be preserved.
Ground truthing is the process by which officials collect ground-level data to verify old revenue records on land. As part of the process, remote sensing data is also collected by aerial photography, satellite or infrared images.
This year, the Aravallis witnessed rampant felling of trees, large scale dumping of waste and loss of forest land. However, this was also the year when the government restored the Mangar Bani buffer zone to 500 metres, and provided temporary relief by moving the Aravallis from ‘not forest’ to ‘status to be determined’ category.
Further, during ground truthing the state government also identified 1 lakh acres of land under NCZ, which puts restrictions on construction in the area.
“There is a paradigm change in the government’s approach. This year, for the first time, the state government has agreed to the Supreme Court order to identify forest areas, which was not the case earlier,” said MD Sinha, conservator of forests, Gurgaon.
However, continuing with the uncertainties, the status of another 1 lakh acres of Aravallis’ hill areas has been kept under the “yet to be decided” category. Another development that raised questions about the Haryana government’s intentions on the Aravallis was an October memo by the town and country planning department to hold as valid construction permissions granted before August 12, 2014 in the NCZs, including the Aravallis, even if construction has not started.
“This letter defies logic as the Supreme Court has repeatedly called for protection of the Aravallis and has asked governments to treat it as a forest,” said activist Vivek Kamboj.
When enquired about the status of the Aravallis, Sinha said, “The state government is waiting for the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to present draft guidelines to identify forest areas. This process of identification is complicated as a large amount of forest land is erstwhile panchayat/shamlat land now held by private owners, and it has to be converted to panchayat land according to the Supreme Court orders. This process is not easy.”
At present, the Aravallis fall under the about 5% to 7% forest cover area identified in Haryana, including tree cover area. If the Aravallis are removed from the forest category, the state will be left with only 0.4% forest area in South Haryana, Sinha pointed out.
In a recent case of tree felling in Mangar Bani, the forest department replanted the area in an attempt to restore tree cover, a move that somewhat offset the creeping change in land use. However, as environmentalists pointed out, major issues related to the area are still pending. “Restoration of Mangar Bani zone is a welcome move, but a formal announcement on the grove’s identification is still awaited. Once that is done, both the Bani and its buffer area should be accorded permanent protection under the EPA, or Wildlife Act,” said Chetan Agarwal, an environmental analyst.
Keeping in mind all these developments, the forest department and environmentalists are of the opinion that this year was more of a holding year not just for the Aravallis, but the forests of south Haryana in general. One will have to wait and watch how the developments in the coming year shape the forest areas, and whether we can still call them ‘forests’.