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Law changes bring Aravalli conservation to the fore

By Prayag Arora-Desai
PUBLISHED ON DEC 22, 2019 10:15 PM IST

Gurugram The issue of legal protection, or a lack thereof, for the Aravalli hills of south Haryana, came to the fore in 2019, spurred by legislative amendments to the colonial-era Punjab Land Preservation Act (1900). Approved by the Haryana cabinet in February, the amendments would have removed 60,000 acres of Aravalli land in the National Capital Region (NCR) from the legal definition of ‘forest’, opening them up to real estate and commercial interests.

Towards the end of the year, on November 19, the Union environment ministry submitted a report to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), recommending a 47 per cent reduction in Haryana’s Natural Conservation (NCZs), which were formulated in 2005 as part of the NCR Planning Board’s (NCRPB) Regional Plan 2021. From an original area of 122,113.30 hectares, only 64,384.66 hectares were recommended for retention in the conservation zone.

A former senior official of the state forest department, who requested anonymity, said, “The proposed reduction in NCZ, in conjunction with amendments to the PLPA, will ensure that barely any legal forest cover will be left in south Haryana. By default, the land will become open for purposes other than forestry or conservation, and Delhi-NCR will lose a major ecological buffer. We know that air and water quality will be affected, but the larger adverse consequences are unpredictable. This year, we got a glimpse of the eventual fate of the Aravallis.”

Amendments to the Punjab Land Preservation Act

The PLPA, as its name suggests, was implemented in 1900, to preserve land in undivided Punjab. The act did this by curbing certain activities, such as felling of trees for timber, quarrying for rocks, agriculture, herding and other pastoral preoccupations, on land notified under the PLPA. “Any human intervention which could alter the structural complexity of the ecosystem was prohibited, as it could lead to soil erosion, affect the availability of subsurface water, alter the landscape, lead to biodiversity loss and other unpredictable consequences,” said Pia Sethi, a senior fellow at The Energy Research Institute, Delhi.

In the last century, India has enacted two major laws to safeguard its forests — the Indian Forest Act (IFA), 1927, followed by the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980. Environmentalists believe that in an ideal world, the entire Aravallis in Haryana should fall within the ambit of these laws. “However, this could not be done as large parts of the Aravalli lands have traditionally been owned by village panchayats. To be notified as protected or reserve forests, the land cannot be owned by anyone. This is one of the main reasons why Haryana’s Aravallis, whether notified under the PLPA or not, are not protected under any strong, central laws,” the former forest department official explained.

In the absence of notification under the IFA (and attendant protection under the FCA), lawyers and environmentalists have spent decades convincing the Supreme Court that PLPA-notified lands are just as ecologically sensitive, even if their ownership histories do not align with the criteria required by ‘protected’ or ‘reserved’ forests. The court has been in alignment with this interpretation as in multiple instances, including 2018’s seminal judgment in the Kant Enclave matter, the SC has been unequivocal in its understanding of the relation between the FCA and the PLPA.

On February 20, the PLPA amendment draft bill was notified and made public. Despite opposition from experts and the civil society, the Haryana cabinet on February 27 passed the PLPA amendment bill. In the ensuing days, the Congress and Jan Janayak Party made their objections to the amendments, public. On March 1, the Supreme Court stayed the amendment, terming it “obnoxious and contemptuous”.

By August, however, the PLPA amendment bill had reportedly received the Haryana governor’s assent. However, the government is yet to notify the amended act and enforce it. “Publicly, the amended act is in limbo. It has not yet been notified by the state, in keeping with the SC’s orders, but it has received the governor’s assent. It has not been withdrawn either,” said Sarvadaman Oberoi, a city-based activist. He called for clarity on the current status of the PLPA.

Proposed reduction in Natural Conservation Zones (NCZs)

In 2005, the NCRPB notified its Regional Plan 2021 for Delhi-NCR, under which 122,113.30 hectares of ecologically sensitive land in south Haryana (across nine districts, including Gurugram and Faridabad) were slotted for conservation as Natural Conservation Zones (NCZs). “The major natural features, identified as environmentally sensitive areas, are the extension of Aravalli ridge in Rajasthan, Haryana and NCT-Delhi; forest areas; rivers and tributaries... major lakes and water bodies such as Badkhal lake, Suraj Kund and Damdama in Haryana sub-region...,” according to the document concerned on the NCRPB website.

In 2014, at the behest of Haryana, the NCRPB agreed to allow NCR states to conduct a ground-truthing exercise, to determine whether or not these areas indeed required protection. “The NCZ’s main instrument of conservation was to restrict construction and development activities to just 0.5 per cent of the NCZ area,” said Vaishali Rana Chandra, a city-based environmentalist.

At present, experts say, by reducing the quantum of NCZs by 47 per cent, thousands of hectares of Aravallis will be open to real estate interests.

“This will result in adverse consequences for air quality and groundwater recharge in Gurugram, Faridabad and Delhi,” Oberoi said. He drew attention to previous Supreme Court orders, such as the one from 2004, in the MC Mehta case, which call for the protection of the Aravallis “at any cost”.

The NGT has constituted a new committee to determine the extent of NCZ areas. A new report in the matter is expected to be filed by March 2020.

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