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Whose forest is it, anyway?

Whose forest is it, anyway?
The Aravali range is like a shield which keeps the desert at bay; it harbours many wildlife species and is an important watershed/Photo: Lambi KH
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Above: The Aravali range is like a shield which keeps the desert at bay; it harbours many wildlife species and is an important watershed/Photo: Lambi KH

Though the judiciary has often stepped in to stop the plunder, without the will of the Haryana government, protecting the Aravali range will be an uphill task

By Papia Samajdar

That is a forest? At first glance, it might seem to be a simple question worthy of a simple answer! However, the events surrounding the Lt Col (Retd) Sarvadaman Singh Oberoi vs State of Haryana case seem to suggest otherwise.

On March 9, 2019, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) held that the 52-acre land in Sarai Khawaja village in district Faridabad, Haryana, be treated as a “deemed forest”. Dense vegetation covered this piece of land nestled in the Aravalis, as shown in a 2016 satellite image. According to the NGT, applying the dictionary meaning of forest, this plot should be deemed as one. Questioning the stand of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), the bench headed by NGT chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel questioned why the inquiry report by its own regional office was ignored. The NGT order is, however, unclear on whether the permission to build on this land stands revoked or not.

The dispute over this land began in 2015, when real estate developer Bharti Realty Limited sought permission to clear it of vegetation to build an urban housing project. The vegetation consisted of mesquite bushes, a native of the Aravali range. In 2015, the Haryana Forest Department had recognised this plot as forest land and disallowed felling of trees. It agreed that the land was protected by the Supreme Court’s 2014 order to protect the Aravali hills and the Punjab Land Preservation Act which prohibited felling of trees and restricted construction on “gair mumkin pahar” or infertile hills.

A letter written by the conservator of forests and wildlife, Gurugram, surfaced in 2017, claiming that pressure was being created by the additional chief secretary of Haryana to give clearance for realty development in Sarai Khawaja village. The additional chief secretary deviated from the stance previously taken by the Haryana Forest Department, and allowed felling of 7,000 trees. Citing that the plot was not listed in the revenue records, he argued that it was not forest land, thus allowing the clearing of vegetation by the Bharti Group for real estate development.

Subsequently, there were howls of protests from local environmental activists. A petition filed by Lt Col (Retd) Sarvadaman Singh Oberoi objected to the blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s 1996 order on definition of forests. The regional office of the MoEF&CC had conducted an inquiry following these protests. According to its report released in August 2017, this plot of land is covered by dense vegetation—1,864 trees per hectare—and can be treated as a deemed forest.

However, the MoEF&CC later did a U-turn when it filed an affidavit before the NGT in February 2019, stating that this plot was not a forest. According to the affidavit, “it has been confirmed that this land is neither part of the Aravali plantation project nor the Aravali notification…the ministry agrees with the averment of the state government that the land measuring 52.85 acres is not a ‘forest land’ for the purpose of the Forest Conservation Act (1980)”.

The environment ministry’s changed stance will impact the entire NCT region. The Aravali hill range is like a shield which keeps the desert at bay. It houses many wildlife species and is an important watershed. Rapid unmindful urbanisation and encroachment by miners and realty developers have already put the range in danger. In spite of government policies and several interventions by the judiciary to keep the range protected, vested interests have capitalised on the loopholes in these policies. The existing confusion over what is a forest and inaction to declare patches of land as deemed forest is a key point of contention.

The Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, while laying down provisions for forest conservation, does not clearly define what constitutes a forest. The Supreme Court, in the 1996 TN Godavarman Thirumalpad vs Union of India case, had defined forests as per the dictionary meaning of forests. This landmark case extended the designation of forests to include areas with tree cover and not just ownership of land by the forest department.

In 2006, the Supreme Court ordered all state governments to identify forests as per the dictionary meaning of the word, apart from the notified forests. In April 2015, the Haryana government decided to designate the status of areas with tree cover as “status to be decided”, constituting approximately 7,616 hectares in Gurugram and Haryana. This is apart from the notified forest areas. The land in south Haryana in the Aravali range is not notified as forest land unlike the hills situated in Delhi, Rajasthan and north Haryana. Most of the land in south Haryana is privately owned by panchayats or individuals.

In 2016, the MoEF&CC released a draft notification specifying the definition of forests under the FCA. The new definition classifies forests in two ways—first, in relation to states where the surveys were completed before the FCA was enacted and revenue records were settled, and second, in relation to states where this process was not completed and confusion remains over what constitutes forest land. According to the new definition, in states with low forest cover such as Haryana, patches which have 10% forest density will get FCA cover. There has not been much movement since then, and the state is yet to identify these patches as forest land.

The MoEF&CC, in its February 2019 affidavit to the NGT, stuck to the argument that land not recorded as forest cannot be deemed as forest. This stand, in agreement with the Haryana government, gives licence to realty developers and private landholders to ignore the conservation efforts in the region.

The NGT’s order declaring that the 52-acre land be considered a deemed forest was hailed by environmentalists. It sets an important precedent, and environmentalists are hopeful that similar areas, such as Mangar Bani and Aravali biodiversity parks, will be accorded the status of deemed forests. The realty developers, though, are not happy with the order and plan to appeal to the Supreme Court to reverse it so that they can continue with their development plans. Recently, the Supreme Court had to step in to check the Haryana government when it amended the Punjab Land Preservation Act. The amendment opened the entire Aravali range in the state to realty development and mining activities.

The Aravali range suffers from rampant illegal encroachment, in violation of various court orders and protection policies. Though the judiciary has often stepped in to stop the plunder, without the will of the state government, protecting this ancient range will be an uphill task.

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