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Greens in the red: Why Aravallis matter to National Capital Region

A century-old Act is perhaps the only thing keeping the Aravallis safe from rampant construction. With the Haryana government moving to amend it, and the Supreme Court stepping in, The Indian Express attempts to understand what’s at stake

Written by Sakshi Dayal | New Delhi | Published: March 4, 2019 11:08:31 am
Why Aravallis matter to National Capital Region The Aravallis are crucial to groundwater recharge, which is significant given the water scarcity the region faces during harsh summer months (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)
  • Green lungs to combat pollution

The thick forest cover helps to naturally purify air in a region plagued by high levels of vehicular and industrial pollution through the year

  • Home to flora and fauna

Around 400 species of native trees, shrubs and herbs, 200 native and migratory bird species, and wildlife including leopards, jackals, nilgai and hyena thrive here

  • Oasis in a concrete jungle

The Aravallis are crucial to groundwater recharge, which is significant given the water scarcity the region faces during harsh summer months

It was in 1900 that the then Government of Punjab enacted the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), aimed at “conservation of sub-soil water” and “prevention of erosion” by giving the state power to “regulate, restrict or prohibit” certain activities, including “clearing or breaking up” of land. As a result, for the last 118 years, the Act provided notified tracts of land in the Aravallis protection against real estate construction, urbanisation and mining.

This changed on February 27, when the Haryana government passed an amendment Bill in the Vidhan Sabha, which environmentalists have since termed a “repeal” of the 1900 Act. The Bill proposed several changes to the Act, including exclusion of land that falls under “final development plans” or any other “town improvement plans or schemes” from its ambit, leaving thousands of acres of the Aravallis vulnerable and “legitimising” hundreds of structures that have been constructed on PLPA notified land.

Days later, on March 1, the Supreme Court came down heavily on the Haryana government for the move, calling it “sheer contempt”, and restraining the state from implementing it. With uncertainty over what comes next, the fate of 60,000 acres of Aravallis in south Haryana, including over 20,000 acres in Gurgaon and Faridabad, hangs in the balance.

Risk factor

The Aravallis in Haryana are home to over 400 species of native trees, shrubs and herbs, more than 200 native and migratory bird species, and wildlife that includes leopards, jackals, hyenas, mongoose and civet cats. The only thing saving their habitat has been the PLPA, Section 3 of which states: “Whenever it appears to the (state) government that it is desirable to provide for conservation of sub-soil water or prevention of erosion in any area subject to erosion, or likely to become liable to erosion, government may by notification make a direction accordingly.”

Why Aravallis matter to National Capital Region Environmentalists say the amendment will directly impact wildlife in the Aravallis. (Express: Abhinav Saha)

In areas thus notified, Section 4 states, the state government can “temporarily regulate, restrict or prohibit” certain activities, including “clearing or breaking up or cultivating of land”; “quarrying of stone or burning of lime”; “cutting trees or timber”; “admission, herding, pasturing or retention of sheep”; and “granting of permits” to residents of towns or villages located in the vicinity of the area “to take any tree, timber or forest produce… to pasture sheep”; and “to cultivate or erect buildings therein”.

In multiple orders over several years, the Supreme Court has reiterated the PLPA’s powers, recognising land notified under the Act as a “forest”. This was most recently done in a September 11, 2018, order on Kant Enclave — an upscale residential colony in Faridabad that stands on 425 acres of PLPA notified land.

“We have no doubt that land notified by the State of Haryana under provisions of the PLP Act must be treated as ‘forest’ and ‘forest land’,” stated the court, ordering demolition of the colony, which too would have got protection under the state’s latest move.

Officials in the Haryana government admit there is uncertainty over the next step. “The Supreme Court had taken suo motu cognizance of the matter. We will put up the government’s point of view in court before taking any further action. The amendment in the PLPA was made for development in areas concerned,” said Rajiv Jain, media advisor to Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar.

Opposition parties, however, have come out strongly against the move. Terming the amendment a “Rs 50,000 crore scam”, senior Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala, at a rally in Faridabad Saturday, promised that the Congress would “abrogate” the law “after forming a government in Haryana”.

“The Khattar government has played into the hands of some builders and politicians, out to loot… thousands of crores. The SC has not only reprimanded and slammed the state government within 24 hours, but also stayed the decision. Now the Chief Minister needs to answer,” he alleged.

Proposed changes

The amendment to the Act proposes multiple changes that, environmentalists and residents fear, will dilute it:

The first is substitution of Section 3 to state that in context of land the government believes is subject or susceptible to erosion, instead of the government issuing a ‘notification’ to this effect, it must first issue a ‘preliminary notification’ “to invite objections from the person interested in such lands”.

The “interested” party must then file objections in writing with the Deputy Commissioner “within 60 days”, following which the latter has to give them a “reasonable opportunity” of hearing, and prepare a report with his recommendations. The decision of the state government, after considering the recommendations, “shall be final”, states the amended section.

Justifying this proposal, the ‘amendment bill’ presented in the Vidhan Sabha amid opposition outcry states: “There is no provision in the PLPA to provide reasonable opportunity of being heard before imposing restrictions, prohibitions and regulation with respect to an area being proposed to be brought under such restrictions, prohibitions and regulations. In order to adhere to the principles of natural justice, it is required to be provided.”

The amended Act similarly also calls for insertion of two additional sections that give the state government the “power to amend or rescind” any notification or order made under the provisions of the Act, as well as the “power to exempt” “any class of person or areas of land” from “all or any provisions of the Act”, if it feels its “operation or provision” may cause or have caused “undue hardship or circumstances”.

“PLPA does not have any provision to rectify, amend or de-notify the order and notifications issued under the Act even where the same have been found to have inherent defects, mistakes or where certain lands have been inadvertently included or found to have been issued in violation of the prescribed procedure,” states the amendment bill.

“The PLPA also does not have provisions for removal of difficulties or responding to exigencies warranting exemptions to be afforded in exceptional cases,” it adds.

The amended Act also proposes that any notification issued under PLPA be considered valid for a “period of 30 years from the date of its commencement”, stating that “after expiry of the period stated in such orders or notification, the regulations, restrictions or prohibitions imposed therein shall cease to exist”.

This is in direct contravention of a December 16, 2002, SC order, which stated that lands “for which notification under… PLPA 1900 have been issued”, “were or are recorded as ‘forests’ in government records even if the notification period has expired, unless there is approval under FC Act”.

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Especially vulnerable

These amendments, although critical, are irrelevant to the Aravallis in Gurgaon and Faridabad, which, due to another proposed addition in the Act, are rendered out of the ambit of the PLPA as a whole.

Section 3A, which the amendment seeks to add to the PLPA, states that the “Act not apply to certain lands”, including those “included in the final development plans” or “any other town improvement plans or schemes” published under, among others, the Faridabad Complex (Regulation and Development) Act, 1971, the Haryana Municipal Corporation Act, 1994, the Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority Act, 2017, and the Faridabad Metropolitan Development Authority Act, 2018.

The Section also states that the Act similarly excludes “lands forming part of any public infrastructure, including rails, roads, canals, public institutions, government or public establishments” developed prior to the date of publication of the Punjab Land Preservation (Haryana Amendment) Act, 2019.

“For Gurgaon and Faridabad, PLPA will become non-applicable in urban areas where master plans have been approved and will open up the entire Aravalli forests for real-estate development. Over 16,000 acres in Gurgaon district and 10,000-plus acres in Faridabad district will be at risk. Several constructions that were, until now, deemed unauthorised, will also be legitimised,” said environmental analyst Chetan Agarwal.

The ‘amendment Bill’ makes little attempt to cover up this last fact, stating: “(This Act has) led to large tracts under agriculture, public, infrastructure, residential, institutional, commercial and other uses becoming liable to be considered as unauthorised… even where these were explicitly permitted… Lakhs of dwelling units, commercial buildings, industrial units, public buildings and massive public infrastructure and agricultural activities over about one-fourth of the geographical area of the state are affected”.

“Sale and purchase of such lands and immovable properties have become liable to be considered as illegal. Such unintended consequences are adversely impacting livelihood of millions of citizens and need to be analysed and remedied,” it states.

Among the areas that will, as a result, become legitimised, are Kant Enclave. It includes 1,600 plots, of which conveyance deeds have been executed for 284 residential and three commercial plots. Houses have been constructed on 33 of the residential plots.

Kant Enclave residents were among the few who celebrated the amendment. “I had invested all my life’s savings into my home. The demolition order had left us in the lurch,” said Brigadier (retired) M B Anand, who moved to the locality in 2004.

Many fears

The state of the Aravallis, environmentalists say, is worrying enough as it is.

The Wildlife Institute of India, in a 2017 report, had highlighted: “The forests of the Aravalli range in Haryana are now the most degraded forests in India, most of the indigenous plant species have disappeared. The rapid deforestation and developmental activities are destroying the unique landscape that requires immediate conservation attention.”

In its September order on Kant Enclave, the Supreme Court had red-flagged the “influential colonisers” and “a very strong mining lobby in Haryana”.

“It is not only the future generations that have to pay a heavy price for environmental degradation, but even the present generation is paying a heavy price for the environmental and ecological degradation in as much as there is an acute water shortage in the area… What are the more severe consequences that will be felt in the years to come, only time and nature will tell,” it said.

Environmentalist Vijay Dhasmana said the amendment would directly impact wildlife in the Aravallis, which serves as a corridor between Asola Bhatti sanctuary in Delhi and Sariska in Rajasthan.

“This is going to fragment the wilderness that is available from Rewari to Mahendergarh to Gurgaon and Faridabad. People will start construction and create boundaries, and once the boundaries are up, wildlife will be hit,” Dhasmana warned.

“There will be no space for animals to move, and there will be more human-animal conflict, especially in Gurgaon and Faridabad, where there is a good population of leopards. They will clash with the human population, and leopards may be killed,” he said.

The PLPA amendment, if implemented, will also impact another legislation that is in place to protect the Aravallis — the Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ) — fear environmentalists.

There are two criteria for an area to be declared NCZ — it must either be recognised as a forest, or as Aravallis. However, the Haryana government does not recognise the latter as a criterion for NCZ, and the only forests recognised in the state are PLPA notified lands. The government has not identified an inch of deemed forest land, despite a Supreme Court order directing this to be done 22 years ago.

“If the PLPA is gone, then NCZ will also come under threat because Haryana is resisting the identification of Aravallis as a criteria for NCZ. There will be no legal forest left; with the Aravallis not being accepted as a criteria, NCZ protection will go too,” warned Agarwal.

Critical amendments the assembly passed

Directs that Government of Haryana has to first issue a “preliminary notification” to hear and consider objections raised by people “interested” in the land, before it can notify it under PLPA

Excludes “certain lands” from the ambit of PLPA, including land included in the “final development plans” or any other “town improvement plans or schemes”, as well as “lands forming part of any public infrastructure”

Gives state government the power to “amend or rescind” any notification or orders made under PLPA

Gives state government the power to exempt “any class of person or areas or land” from “any or all provisions” of PLPA if it causes them “undue hardship”

Directs that PLPA orders and notifications will be valid for a period of 30 years, and the “regulations, restrictions or prohibitions” imposed shall “cease to exist” afterwards

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