Gurugram villagers claim ‘vilayati babool’ trees drying Aravallis, depleting groundwater level
Villagers in Gairatpur Baas and Mohammadpur Gujar, located in the foothills of Aravalli hills, have alleged that the forest department is paying no heed to their request of replacing mesquite (Vilayti Babool trees) in the region with other flora, especially of the kind that are more conducive to the area. They have suggested that the forest officials plant trees such as peepal, banyan, dhaak, amaltaash and maulasri in the area.
Mesquite, or Vilayti Babool trees, which have a huge presence in the Aravallis, have been an impediment to the villagers in an already water-scarce region, says Amit Rathi, a villager from Gairatpur Baas who actively works for the wildlife in the region. He said villagers estimate a 75 to 80% concentration of Vilayti Babool in the region.
Known for their ayurvedic benefits and use in toothpastes, villagers said mesquite trees are also infamous for the amount of water they consume and they risk transforming the Aravallis into a semi-arid region by putting more strain on the already depleting groundwater table.
Villagers say that 20 years ago, groundwater was at 50 feet, but it has since dropped to 280 feet. This leaves no choice for the local wildlife which depend on the water available, to venture into human habitations to quench their thirst. “Wild animals have ventured into localities 5 to 6 times in the last six months,” Rajesh Vats, a resident of Raisina village, said. In the 1970s, the forest department sprayed foreign mesquite (Videshi Babool) seeds, sourced from Israel, in the Aravallis, from a helicopter hoping to increase the greenery in the region, Rathi said. However, this led to extreme water scarcity in the region, so much so that animals depending on the naturally available water started encroaching into the villages for water.
However, forest officials claimed that animals are venturing in to these spaces for water as this was their original habitat first. “A thirsty animal is bound to go to these places in search of water, since it was originally their land which was encroached upon. We have even constructed ponds and pits in the area so that they don’t venture out to human habitations for water,” Deepak Nanda, district forest officer, Gurugram, said.
On May 15, a one-and-a-half year old leopard was found dead in Gairatpur Baas, near the pit constructed by the villagers, as it had ventured into the area in search of water.
Villagers of Gairatpur Baas have been pleading with the forest department to allow them to remove mesquite trees and replace it with other flora such as peepal, banyan, dhaak and amaltaash, but to no avail. They have demanded 10 acres to start replacing the mesquite trees and are even willing to shell out their money for the purpose.
“Another reason why babool trees are a menace is that they inhale oxygen rather than releasing it,” Rathi said. However, this was said to be unscientific and false by Pradip Krishen, noted environmentalist, author and filmmaker, who has extensively studied flora.
It is fallacious to assume that the Aravallis are only conducive for the growth of mesquite and not other flora. Vats, who owns a four acre land in the region and is the founder of Keshav Dhaam, a shrine in Raisina village, stands out as one who has grown other flora in the region. Having grown mango, green apple, walnut, lemon, chickoo, mausambi, pears and other trees on his 4-acre plot, Vats has proved that the region is conducive for the growth of all sorts of vegetation, even plants which grow in colder regions.
“All sorts of vegetation can grow in the Aravallis, but it does take some effort from the forest department. However, the forest officials have not offered any assistance in the matter,” Vats said. After spending close to ₹1lakh to plant around 1,000 trees in the region, Vats said the trees died as no one took care of them.
However the forest department said that they were not notified about this. “It is up to the person who planted the trees to take care of it,” Nanda said.
The local wildlife also doesn’t feed on the mesquite trees, as they have thorns, Rathi said.
However, acclaimed environmentalist, author and filmmaker Pradip Krishen said that high water consumption by the Vilayti Babool trees is not such an issue here. “Firstly, there are three different species mesquite trees and one is often confused with the other. There is the desi babool, also known as acacia nilotica, which is found on farmlands. Then there is the Israeli babool or acacia tortilis, which was introduced by the forest department in Haryana to plant alongside roads. However, they have a minimal presence in the Aravallis. Lastly, there is the Vilayti babool or kikar, also known as prosopis julislora, which is found in the Aravallis. The region is becoming semi-arid, not because of the high water consumption by the babool, but because the last good rainfall happened in September 2017 and the Aravallis have quartzite, which allows rainwater to seep into it through fissures and cracks, and hence, there is scarcity of water on the surface. However, places with a high concentration of quartzite are also deemed good water recharging zones, as the water tends to recharge the aquifers below. However, the same water don’t come to the surface easily,” Krishen said.
Krishen, however, agreed that Vilayti Babool is an invasive species and is a menace for other vegetation in the region. “These are invasive species which doesn’t allow any other vegetation to grow, as they secrete alkaloids from their root zones. The forest department has outdated policies and a good healthy forest is required in the region through ‘rewilding’, a conservation practice through which vegetation is brought back to degraded land,” Krishen said.
The forest department said that mesquite trees have actually saved the Aravallis by acting as soil binders. “Section 4 and 5 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 states that no tree can be cut without the permission of the divisional forest officer (DFO) and the Supreme Court has stated that the green cover of the Aravalli has to be sustained. This demand (to replace Mesquite trees) is born out of the vested interests of some villagers,” Nanda said.
Last year, the forest department had passed an order stating that permission would not be required to clear mesquite (videshi babool) and kikar trees in the Aravallis. The department, however, revoked the order after facing a lot of criticism.
“This is not something I am aware of,” Nanda said.