The air quality of the National Capital, which has been baking at temperatures in excess of 45 degrees Celsius since last week, wasn’t ruined overnight.
The city, which starts resembling a gas chamber every winter, is a dust chamber these days, and the Air Quality Index has been ruling in the range of ‘unhealthy’ to ‘hazardous’ for months now.
The reason for this catastrophe is not far to seek. The Aravallis, the 700-km mountain range that acts as a green barrier and prevents the desert dust of the Thar from entering the capital, has been meticulously and mercilessly ravaged over decades.
Vijay Dhasmana, an ecologist who conducts an annual mapping at the Aravali Biodiversity Park and is associated with the environment awareness NGO, ‘I am Gurgaon’, told Firstpost that between 1984 and 2001, as much as 50 percent of the Northern Aravallis have vanished. “There are 12 gaps within the scattered Aravallis that are entry points for the desert winds in these morphologically scattered hills. Moreover, since the top soil is now very open, the wind blows the dust off the surface,” Dhasmana said, emphasising on the need for reforestation and returning to the wild.
Late last year on 23 October, the Supreme Court too took cognisance of the fact that 31 out of 129 Aravallis hills have disappeared.
Historically, the Aravalli hills have played a crucial role in recharging the area’s groundwater by retaining rain water and sending it downward towards the plains of Haryana and Delhi. In March, the Supreme Court had come down heavily on the government of Haryana for its proposed amendments to the ‘Punjab Land Preservation Act 1900’ that provides for conservation of subsoil water and prevention of erosion.
The Aravalli Notification 1992 of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), applicable to Alwar in Rajasthan and Gurgaon in Haryana, was supposed to pave the way for the conservation of the fragile ecosystem around the hills that have shrunk in height and width over the past decades. According to this notification, these mountains comprise uncultivable hills (gair mumkin pahaad), cultivable grassy foothills (banjar beed), ravine foothills (gair mumkin beed) and rocky areas between the two hills (roondh).
Significantly, the notification does not cover Haryana’s Faridabad, which lies east of the Capital, and despite the Supreme Court noting in 2004 that the Aravallis must be protected at all costs, there has been no amendment to the 1992 notification to extend its applicability to the entire Aravalli range.
In the wake of the dust build up in the capital, Firstpost went to the affected areas to study the situation first-hand.
In Alwar is a village named Jajor. Here, farmers complain, the small hill on which they grazed their cattle has been taken over by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to set up a defence facility. According to DRDO and statements by the Congress government of 2011, the forest department had cleared the acquisition of 850 hectares of land in Khoa in Alwar district and 350 hectares in Roopnagar for installing a ballistic missile defence grid to protect western and northern India.
But locals have a different story to tell. Dr Virendra Vidrohi, who runs an organisation called the Matsya Mewat Shiksha Evam Vikas Sansthan, said the DRDO had got an NOC from the Gram Panchayat, and not the Gram Sabha. The former is a body that comprises representatives of various villages — but not the village closest to the hill, Jajor.
Vidrohi shared two documents with Firstpost – one a hand-written sheet dated April 2011, with the minutes of the meeting conducted by the then district collector, in which it is clearly stated that the Kithoor Gram Sabha disapproves of the decision to use forest land for other purposes.
The other document is a letter from DRDO to the chief conservator of forests in New Delhi, dated a month earlier.
“The case filed by the Mewat Kisan Panchayat, an unregistered organisation, is now in the Supreme Court,” said Vidrohi. “We are questioning the NOC (Vidrohi called it a fake document) and the fact that the approvals of the locals wasn’t sought, apart from the damage to the ecology such a facility can cause.”
Vidrohi had contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Alwar on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket.
Shifat Khan, a resident of Alwar who is associated with the Bahujan Samaj Party, said the granting of the NOC was a mystery. He said the ‘fake NOC’ was granted by an environment cell in far away Lucknow.
The DRDO has in its 2011 letter stated that the ‘central government hereby conveys the stage 1 approval for diversion of 850.00 ha of forest land between Khoa and Jajor for establishing a strategic Defence Project’. It added that the legal status of the diverted forest land shall remain unchanged.
Vidrohi said that the heat generated by DRDO’s facility will ruin the already damaged ecology. Moreover, Aravalli hills typically have boulders that do not support any kind of construction. “Our local leader from Alwar (who also contested on a Congress ticket in 2019) Jeetendra Singh was the minister of state for defence at the time,” Vidrohi said.
Khusheed Ahmad, whose wife Sarijaan Begum was the sarpanch of Kithoor at the time, said he has no knowledge of the Stage 1 approval being granted by the panchayat. “We had approached the high court back then, but were asked to file an FIR. Since my wife was the sarpanch, we didn’t file an FIR in her name,” he said.
In Gurgaon, one finds similar stories of the courts and civil society intervening to rescue the once mighty Aravallis. Ram Avtar, 72, former sarpanch of Manesar, recalls all the destruction that happened right before his eyes. He has filed three complaints with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), one of them against the permission of forest clearance sought by the Haryana Police to build a training centre on 398 acres of land.
“In the first 59 acres, they cut 5,000 trees and they are now waiting to chop off 62,840 trees to build the rest of the complex,” he said.
In the 1990s, Ram Avtar had led a campaign against the decision of the then chief minister, Om Prakash Chautala, to construct an amusement park that would have taken up 5,000 acres of forest land in 11 villages, including Damdama, Ahbepur, Rithoj, Behelpa, Kherla and Bechirag.
“In my lifetime, I have noticed that trees like the kikar babool (gum arabic tree) and the dhonk (Anogeissus Pendula) which were the resident trees of the Aravallis are no longer visible,” he said.
What is perhaps most pertinent about the the Green Tribunal Act, 2010 is that violators cannot be prosecuted under the Indian Penal Code, but as civil misdemeanours. Penalties are imposed, the offenders are fined and orders are passed for restoring status quo ante. And life goes on unabashed.
Chetan Agarwal, an environmental services analyst based in Gurgaon, says the law is toothless compared to other acts that have provisions for criminal prosecution. For instance, the first FIR under the Punjab Land Preservation Act was filed in March against a resident in Mewla Maharajpur village, on charges of illegal constructions in a forest area of Surajkund.
The Supreme Court has finally intervened to rescue the Aravallis, but human nature may have already taken its toll on nature.
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Updated Date: Jun 14, 2019 11:34:52 IST