The tale of a new forest

The tale of a new forest

New Delhi: Every day, Col. Pradeep Sandhir, commanding officer of the Eco Task Force of the Rajput regiment at Bhatti in New Delhi, cycles across this now-green oasis in the heart of Delhi. On a good day, he spots several varieties of birds, and a few snakes, jackals, blue bulls, monitor lizards and porcupines. He has even spotted the threatened striped hyena—a mother with her cubs. And the pied crested cuckoo, a migratory bird from eastern Africa whose arrival heralds the monsoon, has come to breed at Bhatti this year, along with hundreds of weaver birds.

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It’s taken around a decade but both the biodiversity and the forest micro-climate of the area are back to normal, testimony to what reconservation efforts can achieve and a benchmark for similar exercises in other parts of the country, especially in Karnataka, where the Supreme Court, through a late July order, stopped iron ore mining in Bellary district after the court’s Central empowered committee warned that forest cover in the region would be completely destroyed on account of illegal mining.

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The Supreme Court’s order came almost a decade after the Union environment ministry decided that no fresh mining licences would be issued, nor old ones renewed, till the Karnataka state government conducted a study on the impact of mining on the environment. In early August, the committee inspected mines in other parts of the state. While the committee wasn’t particularly impressed with what it saw, Bhatti tells a different, and happier version of the reconservation story.

Twenty years ago, Bhatti, located on the south-eastern part of the southern ridge of the Aravali range adjoining Chattarpur in south Delhi, was a ruin that had been plundered for its red silica and sandstone. Between 1960 and 1990, Bhatti Mines, as the area was then known, witnessed unabated mining that stripped bare the once-dense forest of the Aravalis. In 1991, fearing further loss of green cover, the Delhi state government, with the help of a Supreme Court order, stopped mining in the area. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, though, that illegal mining in the area stopped.

The illegal mining prompted the Delhi government to initiate the process of raising the Eco Task Force (ETF)—a division of the Territorial Army—and declared the 2,166-acre area the Bhatti Mine Sanctuary.

It was a sanctuary in name alone. Back then, Bhatti was all about abandoned quarries, bare hills, and a complete absence of animal life.

Today, the 100-strong ETF has transformed the area. The 200 abandoned mines now resemble deep-forested gorges. The task force has created 36 water bodies and will soon build eight check dams.

“Just give it another year and you’ll see the forest bloom," says D.M. Shukla, chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden, National Capital Territory, Delhi.

Sandhir recalls the difficulties of restoring the green cover in the initial years when ETF had to secure the area from the illegal mining mafia, cope with biotic pressure (from cattle in the surrounding villages), and illegal encroachments. A new threat cropped up last year when the Municipal Corporation of Delhi said it wanted to use Bhatti Mines as a landfill site, a move scotched by the courts.

“The site conditions were extremely degraded with hardly any top soil cover. The problem was aggravated as Bhatti fell in the rain shadow area. Around 2004, all illegal activities were wiped off and the ETF got its act together under the guidance of Delhi forest department, Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems of Delhi University (CEMDE) and Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun," says Sandhir.

After working on the soil and moisture conservation plan, ETF members planted 1.3 million saplings of 46 species of trees indigenous to the region. The state has spent Rs25 crore to date on the project and Shukla says another Rs5 crore a year will be spent to maintain progress. It wouldn’t have been possible without ETF, adds Shukla, who is now contemplating involving a company of CRPF men for the sole purpose of protecting the green cover.

“As the Delhi forest department doesn’t have much manpower and is not a very structured department, as compared to other states, it is difficult to manage such a large area on its own," he said. “ETF is doing a good job and with them there is a sense of security."

The Territorial Army, a volunteer reserve defence force that’s part of the army, has eight ecological units, and all are engaged in reforestation drives across the country.

The story of Bhatti is relevant today as mines and mining are in focus again with controversies about their environmental impact surfacing in Goa, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. In 2002, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of one of India’s largest mining sites, Kudremukh Iron Ore Co. Ltd (KIOCL) in Karnataka, for violation of forest and wildlife laws. A report by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) and the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM) revealed that the mining of bauxite, copper, iron, chromite and manganese causes the maximum environmental degradation. Recent judicial intervention regarding mining in Bellary in Karnataka may provide some respite. The Bhatti Mines story proves that, while it will be decades before the forest cover in the area can restored, degradation can be reversed when there is a will to do so.