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MoEFCC report slashes Haryana’s NCZ areas by 47%, NGT orders fresh assessment

By Prayag Arora-Desai, Gurugram
PUBLISHED ON NOV 29, 2019 07:34 PM IST

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has constituted a new committee to determine whether sub-regional plans for the protection of Natural Conservation Zones (NCZs), as submitted by the National Capital Region states of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, are consistent with the Regional Plan 2021 (RP-21) prepared by the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB).

The direction comes in response to the results of a long-pending ‘ground-truthing exercise’, which kicked off at Haryana’s behest in 2014, to determine whether areas originally marked for conservation by the NCRPB actually required environmental protection. Now, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s (MoEFCC) final report in the matter, submitted to the tribunal on November 19, recommends a 47% decrease in Haryana’s NCZs across nine districts. From an original area of 1,22,113.30 hectares, the ground-truthing exercise recommends retention of just 64,384.66 hectares in the conservation zone.

In Gurugram, the environment ministry’s report has recommended excluding 4,334.23 hectares of land from the NCZ (of the original 19,417.29 hectares). Similarly, in Faridabad, 2,883.71 hectares have been recommended for exclusion (from the original 15,401.55 hectares). Despite the massive difference, which the MoEFCC report acknowledges, it also states that there is “no perceptible difference” between the NCRPB’s regional plan 2021 and the sub-regional plans of the three states.

This claim is based on the MoEFCC’s position that “as far as area under NCZ mentioned is concerned, there is no state-wise figure of area mentioned in the RP-21”. Experts and activists have criticized this stance, saying it exploits an easy loophole, as well as the ministry’s recommendations to the NGT.

“Removing these areas from NCZ, where construction is permitted on only 0.5% of the land, will open thousands of hectares of Aravallis to real estate interests,” Col. (Retd.) Sarvadaman Oberoi, an environment activist, said. “This will result in adverse consequences for air quality and groundwater recharge in Gurugram, Faridabad, and Delhi,” Oberoi warned, drawing 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 new NGT-appointed committee, which will file a “final report” in the matter within three months, comprises representatives from the environment ministry, the National Remote Sensing Centre, the Forest Survey of India (in Hyderabad), as well as the principal chief conservators of forests and revenue secretaries of Haryana, Rajasthan and UP. A copy of the NGT’s directive (dated November 22) is with Hindustan Times.

Meanwhile, the tribunal has directed that “no land marked to be part of NCZ by the NCRPB may be diverted for any other purpose without the permission of the NCRPB till March 20, 2020.” Experts, however, believe that delaying the finalisation of NCZ areas is only prolonging the window during which these lands can be diverted for purposes other than environmental conservation.

For instance, land consolidation of over 2,500 acres of originally proposed NCZ land (categorised as ‘gair mumkin pahad’) in Faridabad’s Kot village is presently underway. The state tourism department has also requested diversion of another 76 acres of gair mumkin pahad land in Faridabad for the Badkhal lake rejuvenation project, while another 260 acres of Aravalli land in Mandawar have been sold to the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) to set up a paramilitary camp. In other Aravalli areas, which were originally slotted for protection under NCZ, such as Gwal Pahari, environmental clearances have been provided for multiple real estate projects.

“If there is a shrinkage in the area, it is also because there have been encroachments on these lands since 2005. Now, instead of recommending the removal of these encroachments from the NCZs, what the ministry’s report does is regularise these violations, several of which are large scale commercial undertakings,” environmentalist Vaishali Rana Chandra said.

A former senior forest department official, seeking anonymity, said, “There cannot be any shrinkage in the NCZ area. On the contrary, in 2016, the NCRPB had extended the definition of the Aravallis to include all landforms mentioned in the MoEFCC’s Aravalli Notification of 1992, such as gair mumkin pahad, bhood, and banjar kadim.” Going by that directive, the NCZ areas should have increased to include all sensitive Aravalli landforms, the official said, questioning the credibility of the ground-truthing exercise, which was helmed largely by the department of town and country planning.

Makarand Pandurang, director, Haryana town and country planning (TCP), declined to take calls on Wednesday, but said later in a text message, “We will examine the NGT order and take action accordingly.” AK Singh, principal secretary, TCP, did not respond to requests for comment. Abhijeet Samata, deputy director, NCRPB, also declined to comment, while BK Tripathi, member secretary, did not respond to requests for comment. Gaurav Khare, spokesperson, MoEFCC, also did not respond to multiple calls and messages.

The constitution of a new committee, however, may bode well for the ecology of Delhi and its adjacent Aravallis, experts said. “This is an opportunity to review the ground-truthing done by the states and by the technical agencies. The fate of the forests and the Aravallis in Haryana hangs in the balance,” forest analyst Chetan Agarwal, who also drew attention to Haryana’s move at amending the Punjab Land Preservation Act (1900) (PLPA) which would deny protection under the Forest Conservation Act (1980) to about 25,000 hectares acres of Aravalli land in South Haryana, said.

Rahul Chaudhuri, an advocate with the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment, pointed out that the cumulative impact of the ministry’s report, along with the PLPA amendment, could spell ecological devastation for the National Capital Region. “There isn’t much to be gained by excluding certain areas from NCZs, because they are protected either under the PLPA or are ‘deemed forests’. This is why one needs to interrogate the combined impact of the ground-truthing exercise and the PLPA amendment, which will remove protection for almost the entirety of Aravallis in south Haryana.”

A senior forest department official, also seeking anonymity, said, “The Haryana forest department is of the opinion that all Aravallis must be included in the NCZ. We had also put this on the record before the National Green Tribunal earlier this year.”

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