In an order issued on Friday, the Haryana Forest Department exempted Kikar and Mesquite, the predominant tree species across its Aravalli range, from the purview of the Punjab Land Preservation Act 1990, which under Section 4 prohibits “cutting (or) setting on fire of trees”.
Asked if this would allow destruction of almost the entire canopy cover across the state’s Aravalli range, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) Dr P P Bhojvaid said on Saturday that the order was being withdrawn. “There was a mistake,” he told The Sunday Express.
S K Gulati, Additional Chief Secretary, Forest and Wildlife, however, claimed that the order did not exempt but only downgraded the risk category of the two species. “These are not endangered species and were shifted from medium to low-risk category to ensure ease of doing business.”
“The initial order by the PCCF was issued by mistake, and withdrawn later. The government had not issued the notification yet,” Gulati said.
However, official sources said reservations were expressed by a section of the forest officers over exemption of the two species from the banned list of trees. “If these trees were exempted, builders and the mining mafia might have tried to get CLUs (change of land use) too issued from the government to convert their land ventures into commercial hubs,” an official said.
The order issued on Friday had added Kikar and Mesquite to “the exempted list” of seven agro-forestry species, including Eucalyptus, Poplar, Bakain, Bamboo, Tut, Amrood and Ailanthus.
Activists associated with the ‘Save Aravalli’ campaign questioned the “motive behind the mischievous order”, which could “potentially open up the Aravalli” areas for construction and mining. “Who would check what species were removed if owners of privatised Aravalli commons cut and set on fire all the trees on a plot overnight?” said Colonel S S Oberoi, an RTI activist with NGO Mission Gurgaon Development.
“About 60 per cent of the Aravallis is not notified as forest. But with standing trees, these areas qualify as deemed forests. That is why the restriction on tree-felling under the Punjab Land Preservation Act 1990 is so crucial. Since up to 90 per cent of the standing trees here are Kikar and Mesquite, under an exemption order like the one issued on Friday, an area could be cleared so that it was not considered deemed forest anymore,” said environmental analyst Chetan Agarwal.
A 1996 Supreme Court order defined forest either as notified forest land on government records or as per the dictionary meaning of a forest — an area covered with trees. In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered that Aravalli areas be identified as forest as per dictionary meaning. Accordingly, the Forest Survey of India set 10 per cent canopy cover as criteria, but Haryana backed out. In April 2013, after claiming that all areas other than notified forests and areas under Sec 4/5 of Punjab Land Preservation Act 1900 were “not forest”, Haryana modified its stand on those areas, to “forest status to be determined”.
With a forest cover of just 3.6 per cent, Haryana has missed the target of reaching green cover by 2010. Under the State Forest Policy (2006), the forest cover target by 2020 is a daunting 20 per cent. Following the loss of major native species in the state, Kikar and Mesquite are now the predominant tree species covering the entire Aravalli range.
While Mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) is an exotic species introduced from Mexico and South America during the 1870s, Kikar (Vachellia nilotica subspecies indica) or Babul is considered native to the Indian subcontinent.
“Juliflora has proliferated in the Aravallis at the cost of native tree species. While we should try and replace it systematically with native species in phases, mass removal at one go will only lay bare large tracts of the Aravallis, with serious environmental consequences. And Kikar is one of the most important tree species in the Aravalli area,” said Dr K S Bangarwa, Head of Forestry, CCS Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar.
Aravalli hills, which are the oldest among the Indian mountains, are spread over lakhs of acres in Haryana, including Gurugram, Faridabad, Bhiwani, Rewari and Mahendergarh districts. A big chunk of land in the hills is believed to have been already been purchased by real-estate players, politicians and bureaucrats, not only from Haryana but other states too.
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