Saving Aravallis: Desert inches towards Delhi, Gurgaon as urbanisation hits buffer zone

Hindustan Times | By, Gurgaon
Oct 12, 2017 11:44 AM IST

In this part of HT’s ongoing series on Aravallis, we take a look at how the range that serves as a barrier between the desert and the north Indian bread basket, is gradually withering.

The Great Indian Desert is gradually spreading towards the east. And the reason is simple.

The Aravallis range of mountains, the last barrier between the expanding desert and the north Indian bread basket for ages, is gradually withering.

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A study by the Haryana government in June showed there are at least 12 breaches (gaps) in the Aravallis, extending from the Magra hills in Ajmer district of Rajasthan to Khetri-Madhogarh hills in Jhunjhunu district and the northern most hillocks in Mahendragarh district of Haryana.

These vulnerable areas are biologically rich and support unique elements of flora and fauna.

“Ruthless deforestation and degeneration of natural pastures on the Aravallis and erratic weather patterns have started taking a heavy toll on this ancient landform. Today, the Aravallis have become less effective and are not being able to perform their ecological functions to the fullest – primarily acting as an effective barrier between the desert and the fertile alluvial plains,” said Narpat Singh Rathore, former head of the geography department, ML Sukhadia University, Udaipur, Rajasthan.

So as the green cover shrinks, these gaps expand. This allows the desert sand to travel eastward towards eastern Rajasthan, the Indo-Gangetic plains, Haryana, Delhi and western UP.

Hindustan Times takes a look at the role the Aravallis play in arresting the desertification, what’s ailing these mountain ranges and why they are not being able to perform their function.

Aravalli as green barrier

The Aravalli hills once used to act as a barrier that provide a shield against desertification. But development without a sustainable plan means the forest areas are increasingly being sacrificed.

The Aravalli forest range in Haryana is now among the most degraded in India. Most of the indigenous plant species have disappeared, said experts.

“The rapid deforestation and developmental activities are destroying the unique landscape that requires immediate attention,” said Vivek Kamboj, an environmentalist.

Salinity in the soil is taking a toll on the forest. It adversely affects the vegetation by reducing plant growth and render areas unsuitable for cultivation. Areas with such soil are left barren because of their non-productive nature.

During 1972-75, the 16 Aravalli districts in Haryana recorded 10,462 sq km of area under various categories of forest cover. Less than a decade in 1981-84, the forest cover reduced to 6,116 sqkm.

This was revealed by the study carried out by Rathore based on remote sensing data of the Aravalli hills.

“The change analysis indicates a decrease in the green cover between 1980 and 2016. There is an urgent need to increase the cover to improve environmental conditions,” said MD Sinha, former conservator of forest, south Haryana.

Water divider

The Aravallis also act as a water divide between the Indus basin in the north-west and Ganga basin in the east, covering extensive areas of the plains of north India.

The occurrence of normal rainfall in north-west India depends much on the preservation of lush green forest cover and the resultant normal evapo-transpiration process over the Aravalli hills.

Hence, any change in the Aravallis will affect eastern Rajasthan, Haryana, western UP and Delhi, experts said.

“Any obstruction and disturbance in the natural set-up will lead to large-scale changes in the areas adjoining the North Indian plains and will be devastating for the environment,” said the Haryana government survey in June.

Groundwater recharge zones

The Aravalli range in Haryana’s Gurgaon district and Alwar district of Rajasthan were notified as an ecologically sensitive area by the NCR planning board in May 1992. The Wildlife Institute of India too released a report in June this year, reiterating that these two districts are ecologically sensitive and serve as ground water recharging zones.

A Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) report in June 2017 said aquifers in Aravallis are interconnected and any alternation in the pattern can disturb the groundwater condition of Haryana and Delhi.

“Any disturbance in the Aravallis should be avoided. If water is contaminated in the hills, it will affect the entire region. Mining activities should not be allowed. The Aravallis are recharge zones,” said Virender Singh Lamba, a hydrologist based in Gurgaon.

Construction activities should be restricted along the foothills because they are important recharge spots, he added.

At present, however, Gurgaon is withdrawing ground water more than three times than what is being recharged. While Faridabad extracts around 75%, in Palwal the extraction is 80% and in Mewat it is 85%.

Also, because of unregulated mining, urbanization and large-scale tree felling, the water table is falling at an alarming rate. In some areas, the depletion rate is nearly 3 metres per year.

“The ground water authority had warned that once the water table reaches 200 metre below ground level, only rocks will be left,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (research and advocacy), Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

Forest cover and category of forest in Haryana

The Haryana government has been turning a blind eye to all these problems. Even though Haryana has less than 4% tree cover, the exact area under forest cover is still a mystery. The state government has still not identified forest cover despite several court orders.

In Haryana, there are three categories under forests -- forest under section 4 and 5 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), natural conservation zones (NCZ) and ‘yet to be decided’ NCZ.

The NCZ can be defined as an area where construction beyond a limit of 0.5% is not permitted under the National Capital Regional Plan 2021 (RP-21).

Around 1 lakh hectares fall under the Aravallis in south Haryana. More than 25,000 hectares are identified as forest under sections 4 and 5 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act.

Around 62,000 hectares have been identified as NCZ, while another 12,800 hectares have been put under the ‘yet to be decided’ category.

The Mangar Bani forest -- the only ‘sacred grove’ in North India -- has a buffer restored up to 500 metres in radius. A provisional definition of forest area was agreed upon.

About 50% of the Aravallis in Haryana was to be protected under NCZ, which is still undecided as of now.

Where are the forests?

The state has not identified forest areas yet despite several Supreme Court judgments in 1996, 1997 and 2011, directing it to protect the Aravalli forests.

However, the master plans in South Haryana apparently claim to treat the PLPA and Aravalli areas as forests, which can be modified. “It is pertinent to mention that though the area notified under section 4 and 5 of PLPA and areas under Aravalli Plantation are not forest per se, but the same have been considered as forest in terms of the orders of Supreme Court of India till the same are modified,” states the Gurgaon-Manesar Urban Complex master plan-2031 as well as the Sohna Final Development Plan 2031.

Need for conservation

Officials said removal of weeds will reduce pressure on forests and the process should be started on a priority basis. Long-term ecological monitoring should be initiated in Aravalli hills. Also, as the region is witnessing desertification and diminishing water level, the government should take steps to enhance tree cover, said Chetan Agarwal, environment analyst.

“Need-based environmental improvement programmes taking care of the local requirement of hill people should be evolved for the Aravalli hill region. The basic needs of the people of Aravalli region such as food, fodder, water, shelter, clothing and employment should be fully met by pre-serving and redeveloping the resource base of the hills. The reforestation, soil and water conservation, animal husbandry and hill environment restoration programmes may fulfil the basic needs of the people of this area,” Rathore said.

In June this year, union environment and forest minister Dr Harsh Vardhan had said desertification can be tackled effectively and solutions are possible. He had said active participation of the local people and cooperation at all levels can achieve this aim.

The minister urged the people of Haryana and the nation to become a large force of ‘Paryavaran Rakshaks’ (environment protectors) to fight the challenges posed by desertification, global warming and climate change.

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    Ipsita Pati is a senior correspondent with the Hindustan Times, covering Gurgaon. She has written on pollution, wildlife, forest cover, Maoists problems and illegal mining while working in different states of India including Jharkhand, West Bengal, Delhi and Haryana.

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