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Punjab Land Preservation Act: Disaster in the Offing

Punjab Land Preservation Act: Disaster in the Offing
The government plan to denotify acres of land categorised as forests will affect the Aravalis/Photo: Anil Shakya
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Above: The government plan to denotify acres of land categorised as forests will affect the Aravalis/Photo: Anil Shakya

The Haryana government’s move to amend an Act that bars construction activity in large sections of the Aravalis will spell ecological catastrophe for NCR and let loose land sharks in the region

By Vipin Pubby in Chandigarh

Haryana, which has the dubious distinction of having the second lowest forest cover in the country after Punjab, has apparently succumbed to the powerful real estate mafia. This lobby had been dem­an­ding either complete repeal or major amendments to the Punjab Land Pre­servation Act (PLPA) to exploit land for commercial purposes.

The century-old Act became applicable in Haryana after the reorganisation of the states in 1966 when it adopted laws existing in then composite Punjab. While Punjab has been thinking of amending the Act to exclude certain areas in the state, Haryana went ahead with amending it on the eve of elections. Although assembly elections are due later this year, there are indications that they will be held simultaneously with the general election. Haryana has been under pressure from the land mafia to take certain areas, particularly in the National Capital Region (NCR), out of the purview of the Act so that they can be developed commercially. If the proposal to amend the Act comes through, Delhi’s immediate neighbourhood will feel the maximum impact as all of Gurgaon, most of Faridabad and ecological preserves like Mangar Bani, will go out of the purview of the PLPA.

The law bars non-forest activity in areas notified under it and covers nearly 20,200 hectares in south Haryana, of which around 7,000 hectares are in Gurgaon and a little over 4,000 hectares in Faridabad. The Act also covers some portions of the Shivalik ranges in northern Haryana. In fact, the Forest Survey of India, in its 2015 report, had stressed that Haryana’s forest cover was merely 3.58 percent of its total area, out of which 90 percent falls in south Haryana in the Aravali ranges.

The law was enacted to preserve the slopes of the Himalayan foothills in erstwhile undivided Punjab. Over the years, several amendments were made to laws relating to land in the state. This resulted in most of the Aravalis being categorised as revenue land under the revenue department rather than the forest department. In certain cases, it led to a paradoxical situation where the land under the PLPA, on which construction was barred, came to have legal private ownership. This further led to illegal construction. If the PLPA is abrogated, such construction will become legal in a single stroke. The proposed amendment would give “post facto” approval to existing violations and encroachments on the grounds that construction has already been carried out in these areas.

The decision to amend the law was taken at a cabinet meeting by Haryana’s chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, recently, but the move is not new. His predecessor, Bhupinder Singh Hooda of the Congress, too had initiated a similar move. Their argument is that the PLPA is over 100 years old and has several flaws and was hampering development. Both assert that the law was formulated by the British without looking at future developments in the region. They argue that the law neither helped in recharging the land nor in increasing the forest cover which appeared to be the primary aims of the Act.

Under Sections 4 and 5 of the PLPA, there are strict restrictions on any non-forest activity in 10 districts of Haryana, including Gurgaon and Faridabad—20,345 hectares of the total 27,304 hectares of Aravali land in these districts were notified under the PLPA. As most of the Aravali ranges, particularly those closer to the NCR, are protected by the PLPA, environmentalists have been crying hoarse as any relaxation would be disastrous for the ecology of the region, and could further dilute the sparse forest cover in the state.

Khattar has been off and on calling for a review of environmental laws which hinder development and growth. He had been referring to the PLPA, saying “it is a 100-year-old Act and needs a review. While there are many areas that still need to be preserved, development has taken place only in a few. Our government is open to review the Act as per its relevance in the current scenario”. His government had last year directed some districts to verify the status of land notified under the PLPA. The districts involved were Gurgaon, Faridabad, Panchkula, Ambala, Yamunanagar, Mewat, Palwal, Rewari, Mahendragarh, Karnal, Jhajjar, Rohtak and Bhiwani.

Environmentalists say that a powerful lobby of land sharks, who purchased land in these areas, has been putting pressure on the government to release the land from the purview of the Act. For them, the area is a goldmine from the point of mining the hills and developing it for commercial purposes.

According to a former conservator of forests, one lakh hectares fall in the Aravalis in southern Haryana. Over a quarter of it is identified as forest under Sections 4 and 5 of the PLPA and around 62,000 hectares have been identified as Natural Conservation Zones (NCZs). Another 12,800 hectares are under the “yet to be decided” category, he said.

Back in 2014, the Hooda government had moved the Supreme Court for de-notifying thousands of acres categorised as “forest”. It took the plea that due to the “forest” tag, landowners had “ceased to enjoy any rights”, including using plots for agriculture. The government said that “their proprietary rights have been taken away without any compensation”.

The BJP government of the state is now following in its footsteps. As per an official press release of the government, it had constituted a committee under the chairmanship of the divisional commissioner of Gurgaon to evaluate the status of areas in the Aravalis covered under Sections 4 and 5 of the PLPA. It was expected to provide a clear picture of the ground reality in the 1.25 lakh hectares under question. The release said the committee was authorised to obtain all relevant government records from departments and agencies concerned to examine the status and land use of the areas marked as “forests” as of October 25, 1980. The report has not yet been made public.

But so keen is Haryana to remove restrictions in the area that it also submitted an affidavit to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on January 6 last year claiming that the Aravali plantation areas are “not forest”. This came under severe criticism from environmentalists who stressed that it was “misleading” as the plantation areas of the Aravalis are recorded as “gair mumkin pahar (non-cultivated land)” and considered “deemed forest”. The affidavit said that clearance under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, was not applicable to Aravali plantation areas for non-forest activities. Environmentalists said that if the government’s claim was accepted, nearly 70 percent of the meagre forest cover would go out of the ambit of green cover.

Yet, over the years, large scale construction had been allowed in parts of the region earmarked under the PLPA. A huge colony was constructed in Anangpur village where land was privatised in the 1970s. After hundreds of houses have been constructed, officials have realised that the area comes under the restricted zone. They have halted construction there, leaving thousands who were yet to make houses on their allotted lands in the lurch. It is virtually impossible now to demolish so many houses built there.

It is obvious that a blanket lifting of restrictions imposed by the Act could lead to chaos and huge damage to the environment.

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