The fate of “5,000-10,000 trees” on around 52 acres of land at Sarai Khawaja village in Faridabad may be decided by the end of this month, with the National Green Tribunal earlier this week directing the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to take a decision on the inquiry report, submitted to help determine whether the request of M/s Bharti Land Limited to fell vegetation in the area can be granted.
The inquiry report, compiled by the Conservator of Forest (CF) (Central), dated August 17, 2017, had concluded that the patch of land was a ‘forest’ as per the dictionary meaning.
The real estate body was looking to clear the land for construction of a project, The Delhi Ridges, defined on its website as “India’s first vertical smart community”.
Need of the hour: Clearly defining ‘forests’
The Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ) includes Aravallis in Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi, as well as forests, rivers, major lakes, water bodies and groundwater recharging zones. Only agriculture, horticulture, pisiculture, social forestry, and regional recreational activities are allowed, with construction allowed only on up to 0.5% of the area. Despite a Supreme Court order in 2006 calling on state governments to define forests as per the word’s “dictionary meaning”, the Haryana government is yet to complete this task, because of which status of several thousand acres of land is “yet to be decided”, leaving them vulnerable. There is still no clarity on how much of the Aravalli range is included under the legal definition of “forest”.
“Vide order dated 18.09.2018, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change was required to take a decision on inquiry report dated 17.08.2017, which was said to be pending before the ministry. Learned counsel for the MoEFCC seeks further time to comply with the direction. Let the same be now complied positively within three weeks, failing which the Inspector General, Forest Conservation, will remain present in person before this Tribunal on the next date,” states the order.
In September 2015, the 52.2991 acre piece of land first became a point of contention, when its owner, M/s Bharti Land Limited, wrote to the Deputy Conservator of Forests, requesting permission to fell mesquite bushes on the land. The request was rejected in a letter dated October 6, 2015, on the grounds that “as per assurance given by Haryana government in the 35th meeting of NCRPB, permission cannot be granted at this stage until the criteria for defining forests is approved by Hon’ble Supreme Court of India”.
In November, 2016, the real estate body approached the Haryana government regarding the matter. In June last year, the Additional Chief Secretary, in three letters in April, May, and June respectively, directed the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) to “issue felling of mesquite bushes”, which resulted in the issuance of a letter by the DCF, Faridabad, dated June 23, 2017, permitting felling of “35,941 trees, poles and undersized plants” on the land.
Environmentalists, however, have opposed the move, contending that the land falls under Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ) and the category of ‘status yet to be decided’, and hence cannot be cleared for the purpose.
The inquiry report by the CF also appears to indicate this, concluding, among other things, that “the land in question is recorded in Jamabandi as ‘Gair Mumkin Pahar’ and thus clearly a part of the Aravalli and thus would automatically be part of NCZ”.
The report further refers to the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Godavarman case and the Lafarge case to make this point.
The matter has been listed for hearing on February 20, 2019.