Delhi can justifiably be proud of being among the greenest cities in India. According to the latest (2013) estimates of the Forest Survey of India, about 12.12 per cent of Delhi is under tree cover. This is still less than half of the national average of 21.23 per cent but significant nonetheless, given that Delhi is largely an urban agglomeration. Safeguarding the ridge forests all along the northern spur of the Aravallis has been an important part of this accomplishment. The Delhi Ridge, widely recognised as critical for the ecological security of the city, is officially protected from construction, dumping of refuse and road-building. It is an important groundwater recharge zone, weather modulator, reservoir of biodiversity and recreational zone.
Haryana has not been so lucky. Way back in 1992, the Supreme Court prohibited mining, construction and road-building in the Aravallis in Haryana. However, many areas, including Faridabad, were left out of this notification. In other areas, the rules were openly flouted. Roads were widened through existing reserved forest and village panchayat land. Apartment complexes were allowed in forest areas. The lush green belt along the highway from Delhi to Manesar fell victim to the creation of the Delhi-Jaipur expressway. All this in a forest-scarce state like Haryana, where only 3.59 per cent of the land is officially under forest cover.
The latest threat is to Mangar Bani, a sacred grove located in the Aravallis of Faridabad. Mangar Bani, which harbours rare animal and plant species, is recognised by ecologists as one of the last remaining examples of natural tropical forests occurring in the NCR. It is revered by local people and has been protected through traditional strictures on wood-cutting and grazing.
Unfortunately, the fate of Mangar Bani has gone back and forth for the last three years. Since 2012, it has been rumoured that it is slated for sale to real estate developers. The administration tried to dilute the construction limits for green areas in 2014 by allowing “tourism activities”. Mangar was then left out of maps of natural conservation zones of the NCR in 2014 in an unexplainable rezoning exercise. For a long time, the Gurgaon and Faridabad administrations were loath to deem it a legal “forest”, an action that would have saved it for all time.
However, on June 9, in a surprisingly bold move, the chief minister of Haryana declared a “no-construction zone” around Mangar Bani along with a 500-metre buffer. Environmentalists are hoping that this is not just a flash in the pan but the precursor to a more judicious and far-sighted outlook to suburban planning in the Gurgaon-Faridabad area.
Mangar is part of a forested stretch that runs all the way from Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary in southeast Delhi via Gurgaon district to the Mewat region. It forms an important catchment for several lakes in Haryana, such as Damdama, as well as regional groundwater aquifers that are already under pressure. The ecological value of this stretch comes from the fact that it is a continuous forest that still harbours large mammals such as nilgais and leopards.
The urban forest concept in landscape planning has yet to catch on in India. Forests in cities are generally seen as “wastelands”, areas that could bring in much-needed revenue if only they were opened up to development or housing. Until then, they are used as receptacles of garbage and construction waste. Even densely populated cities such as Singapore and Bangkok have taken pains to protect green corridors, natural forests and wetlands, and make them accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and nature-lovers. The administrators of NCR need to rethink the meaning of “urban development” to include both ecological security and economic gain — the two can go hand in hand.
The writer is senior fellow with the Centre for Ecology, Development and Research, Delhi.