Aravalli conservation status left hanging in new NCR plan
NCRPB has said that the environment ministry wrote to it in July 2022 specifying a fresh formulation for rewriting the relevant paragraph related to natural zones in the plan which will be placed before the board.
The Union environment ministry has suggested what should be defined as natural zones in the draft Regional Plan 2041 (for the National Capital Region or NCR), but the exclusion of the Aravallis from this and its silence on the continuation of a 0.5% limit on construction in these natural zones has worried environmentalists who fear this could lead to further despoilation of one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world.
To be sure, these suggestions are exactly the same as in an early draft of the 2041 plan, which has removed both provisions from the existing 2021 plan. The Regional Plan 2041 will replace the existing Regional Plan 2021 on the development of the national capital area.
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The National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) has circulated the agenda notes for a Planning Committee meeting scheduled to be held on Wednesday, January 4, where it will discuss the status of Regional Plan 2041. Under the agenda item, NCRPB has said that the environment ministry wrote to it in July 2022 specifying a fresh formulation for rewriting the relevant paragraph related to natural zones in the plan which will be placed before the board. The agenda item enclosed the letter, details of which are emerging for the first time.
The letter proposes that not only areas recognised under Forest Conservation Act, 1980, Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and Environment Protection Act, 1986 but also under other statutes such as the Biodiversity Conservation Act, 2002, Punjab Land Preservation Act and under various court orders must be recognised as natural zones. But formulation however doesn’t cover areas that are not yet notified under central and state laws and doesn’t mention any zoning restriction.
The extent of this distinction is clear on further perusal of its recommendation.
For instance, Regional Plan 2021 defined natural conservation zones (the 2041 plan terms these natural zones) as: “The major natural features, identified as environmentally sensitive areas, are the extension of Aravalli ridge in Rajasthan, Haryana and NCT-Delhi, forest areas, the rivers and tributaries of Yamuna, Ganga, Kali, Hindon and Sahibi, sanctuaries, major lakes and water bodies such as Badkal lake, Suraj Kund and Damdama in Haryana Subregion and Siliserh lake in Rajasthan etc. These areas have been demarcated as Natural Area Conservation Zone in the Regional Plan-2021. Similarly, ground water recharging areas such as water bodies, oxbow lakes and paleochannels have also been identified. These areas be further detailed out in the Subregional Plans and Master/Development Plans and the broad policies for these zones which are as under be incorporated appropriately in them…” It also mandated a 0.5% cap on construction in natural conservation zones, which means only 0.5% area of these zones can be developed.
The draft plan for 2041 changed this definition. It does not mention the Aravallis and tributaries of the Yamuna and Ganga in “natural zones”, and has triggered concerns among experts, who say that such a move will let states be selective about the areas they want to conserve. It also removes the cap on construction. HT reported this on December 28, 2021.
The environment ministry’s recommendation says this as well.
The ministry’s formulation for natural zones proposed to NCRPB reads thus: “The natural features shall be such as are notified for preservation or conservation under the relevant central or state laws. This shall include forests notified as such under Indian Forest Act 1927 or other state specific laws. This shall include forests notified as such under Indian Forest Act 1927 or other state specific laws, protected areas notified under Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Eco sensitive zones, Wetlands and other Conservation areas etc as are duly notified under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 and other areas protected under various central/state laws. Further, for the purpose of Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, the directions given by Hon’ble Supreme Court in this regard from time to time shall be applicable. All Central and State Acts pertaining to environment, forests, wildlife and biodiversity conservation etc shall be applicable as amended from time to time, along with the notifications issued thereunder and will be applied along with various judgements of Hon’ble Supreme Court/High Court/NGT as applicable.”
The Aravallis are absent from this formulation. Nor is there a cap on construction.
The union environment ministry in a statement said, “The MOEFCC vide letter dated 11/07/2022 has made it clear that the provisions of all Central/State laws related to environment, forest and wildlife will be applicable. This also implies the applicability of the notification dated 07/05/1992 issued by the Ministry for restricting certain activities in specified area of Aravalli Range under EPA.”
“The NCRPB has been assigned the role of land use planning within the NCR under the specific Act and therefore decision on imposing any additional restriction apart from above is within the domain of National Capital Region Planning Board,” it added.
To be sure, the environment ministry’s letter also added that directions given by Supreme Court order dated December 12, 1996 , which said forest must be understood according to its dictionary meaning, must be kept inb mind. “This description covers all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise for the purpose of section 2 (i) 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.”
Environmentalists said this could facilitate exploitation of the Aravallis.
“This will allow real estate to come up in Aravalli areas that are not notified as forests. For example, in Faridabad 40% of Aravalli area is not notified,” said Chetan Agarwal, a forestry researcher based in Gurugram. He added: “To say forests can be defined as per dictionary meaning as per the Supreme Court’s order is a theoretical formulation because Haryana has not identified a single acre (as forest) as per dictionary meaning since 1996.”
“The fact that the environment is silent on inclusion of Aravallis is deeply problematic. It should have been clearly mentioned. The second problem is that even if these natural zones are covered under the Forest Conservation Act as the ministry proposes, the state can still apply for diversion to the Centre. So, the ministry should have retained and pushed for the 0.5% cap on construction so that these areas cannot be opened up. The third problem is even though the ministry says forests should be recognised as per dictionary meaning in compliance with the Supreme Court’s order, the Haryana government in so many years has not recognised forests as per dictionary meaning,” added Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer.
A senior official at NCRPB seemed to suggest that the matter was still under discussion.
“The meeting scheduled for Wednesday is not a board meeting. It’s a planning committee meeting to do a status review with focus on the Regional Plan 2041. The issue of defining natural zone or conservation zones is a very sensitive matter. We have received thousands of comments on it and I will not be able to say anything. The environment ministry’s formulation will also be discussed,” said this person who asked not to be named.
The draft plan for 2041 was published by NCRPB on its website on December 9, 2021 with the board seeking public comments on it.