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Home / Opinion / Views /  In defence of the Aravallis

India and the world are going through rapid urbanization, and according to some estimates, by 2025 almost half the people of India would be living in its cities. Urban planners and policymakers have a herculean task of ensuring that our cities don’t become concrete jungles. We also need to ensure that urbanization occurs with the carrying capacity and ecological limits of the region kept in mind. Cities would need to ensure enough water and green spaces are available for their growing populations.

The Aravalli ranges are crucial for the survival of the National Capital Region (NCR). They start from Delhi and traverse through Haryana and Rajasthan before ending in Gujarat, spanning 690km in length. They are among the oldest fold mountain systems in the world and serve two crucial functions for the NCR. First, as a groundwater recharge zone for a perpetually water-starved region. Second, as its last remaining green lungs. They also serve as a barrier against the desertification of the Indo-Gangetic plains.

In an effort to open up the Aravallis for construction, the Haryana government is trying to get a Supreme Court stay order vacated; also visible is its attempt to circumvent existing environmental protections through the removal of the entire concept of a Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ) in the draft Regional Plan 2041. Unless opposed, attempts to eliminate barriers that prevent the destruction of the Aravallis could succeed. A recent proposal from the NCR Planning Board seems to be yet another attempt to open up the Aravallis for construction. All this is deeply worrisome.

To explain further, the preservation of any forest in the NCR is safeguarded under the provisions of the NCR Regional Plan. The Regional Plan 2021 had placed the “Aravallis" and "forest areas" in the Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ). This includes all Aravalli forest areas, water bodies and groundwater recharge areas, and rivers as well as flood plains. It is a stringent category that limits construction to only 0.5% of the total area. In short, the Regional Plan 2021 banned construction for commercial, residential, tourism and real estate purposes in the NCZ.

However, the draft NCR Regional Plan 2041, prepared by the NCR Planning Board of the central government under apparent influence of the current Haryana government, proposes to change this. It has removed the terms ‘Aravalli’ and ‘forest areas’ from the NCZ. In fact, the plan does away with the classification of this zone itself, and replaces it with a very loosely defined new term, “Natural Zone". This new category will provide protection only to those areas which are “notified for preservation" and also “recognized in the revenue records" of states over time.

What this implies is that the Aravallis in Haryana would henceforth be protected only if they are notified under any relevant Act and if the revenue records of states have recorded them as ‘Aravallis’. However, most of the Aravalli hill area in Haryana is not notified and neither is the term ‘Aravalli’ mentioned in revenue records. Instead, it is recorded as “gair mumkin pahaar" (uncultivable wasteland), and “bhood" (sandy foothills). To make things worse, the forest cover of the Aravallis is neither notified nor mentioned as “forest" in revenue records.

Further, the 0.5% limit on construction in the NCZ has been dropped in the proposed classification. A pertinent question to ask would be why we are trying to reclassify the NCZ, which has worked fine until now, unless there is pressure from certain lobbies to dilute that definition and drop its construction restrictions.

The chief minister of Haryana has made several representations to the central government, demanding significant relaxation in the 0.5% cap on construction in the Aravalli region, which, if granted, will permit large scale building activity. In 2016, at a meeting of the NCR Planning Board, the Haryana government stated that it did not recognize the term ‘Aravalli’. This was shot down by the central government and it was agreed that revenue land categories, primarily gair mumkin pahar, across the NCR would be identified as Aravallis and continue to be protected.

The Haryana government continued its relentless pursuit of opening up the Aravallis by amending the Punjab Land Preservation Act. It argued that the amendment—which would open up the Aravallis to non-forest activity—was needed keeping in view “changed circumstances". The Supreme Court intervened immediately and restrained the state from implementing the amendment, and expressed anguish at the attempt to subvert its orders, even warning of consequences if anything was done to the protected area.

The draft regional plan 2041, if implemented in its current form, will drastically reduce the forest cover and open the floodgates to indiscriminate real estate development in the Aravallis, which will have an adverse impact on the air quality and groundwater security of Delhi. The Aravallis are a common groundwater recharge zone for Delhi and Haryana, and all stakeholders must do their bit to protect them. Delhi provided protection to this ecologically fragile area by setting up the Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary; its contiguous area in Haryana also needs to be protected. In this era of climate change, water security and clean air need priority over real estate projects.

Reena Gupta is advisor to the environment minister of Delhi

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