Delhi: In September, around 100 school students from the national capital region (NCR) protested against environmental dilutions in the (NCR) Draft Regional Plan of 2041. They met Hardeep Singh Puri, India's union minister for housing and urban affairs, about excluding India’s oldest mountain range, the Aravallis, and tributaries of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers from the plan that is meant to decide the future of India’s 55,000 sq km NCR, sprawled across three states and a union territory.
In the NCR Regional Plan 2021, the Aravallis, forest areas and all water bodies were protected under “Natural Conservation Zones”, earmarking them for conservation not construction. In the Regional Plan 2041, the term Natural Conservation Zones has been replaced by ‘Natural Zones’, which don’t even mention the term Aravalli.
The plan has been criticised by environmentalists and conservationists for protecting only those geographical features, such as mountains, hills, rivers, water bodies and forests, recognised in land records and notified for conservation under central or state laws.
The 2041 plan, which will replace the 2021 plan, aims to provide a development plan for the NCR, comprising Delhi and bordering districts of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The plan claims to be environment-friendly, technologically driven, citizen-centric and in tune with the global sustainable development goals.
The Regional Plan 2041 was released by the National Capital Regional Planning Board (NCRPB) in December 2021 and put in the public domain till 7 January 2022 for public suggestions and objections. A meeting, scheduled on 5 July to discuss public feedback, did not take place. Officials reported NCRPB received suggestions to restore the term ‘Natural Conservation Zones’, which was evident in the 2021 plan.
The Aravallis run about 700 km in north-western India, starting from Gujarat, and passing through Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi. The mountain range has become an ecologically vulnerable region today due to mining, deforestation, toxic landfills, real estate, illegal encroachments and development projects.
Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement was co-founded in January 2019 by Neelam Ahluwalia, a former journalist who started her career reporting for ‘Living On The Edge,’ a weekly TV show on environmental issues aired by Doordarshan, the public broadcaster, in the 1990s.
In addition to creating awareness among citizens and putting pressure on the government and the administration to protect the Aravalli forests and hills from disappearing in the four states, the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement has a community of environment-conscious citizens working towards environment and forest protection across India.
The movement has submitted letters and signatures of more than 260,000 citizens asking the government to stop the environmental dilutions in the NCR Draft Plan 2041. The group has won two landmark judgments passed by the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal respectively; the first protecting thousands of acres of the Aravallis as forests under the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900, and the second confirming rampant illegal mining in the Aravallis in Haryana.
In an interview, Ahluwalia explained how the NCR Draft Regional Plan 2041 would, “threaten the right to breathe and water security of millions of people living in one of the most polluted regions of the world, Delhi NCR”.
What is the state of Aravallis, and how important is the range taking into consideration climate change?
The Aravallis of northwestern India date back billions of years and account for the majority of the forest cover in the least forest-covered state of India—Haryana (3.6%). Delhi-NCR and the entire north Indian belt are already one of the most polluted and water-stressed regions in India. As global warming and climate change intensify, this region will get more impacted. Air pollution in India’s national capital region will become worse if the Aravallis are destroyed.
Aravalli is a huge climate regulator, influencing the local climate and rainfall and has been instrumental in shaping the climate of the upper Indo- Gangetic plain. They are considered the ‘lungs’ of one of the most polluted regions of the world, Delhi NCR. They help in groundwater recharge, and temperature regulation and form the majority of the forest cover of Delhi NCR. It is the only barrier which stands between the Thar Desert and Eastern Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi and functions as a check on desertification.
The Aravallis have been protected under the NCR Regional Plan 2021, now set to be replaced by the NCR Draft Regional Plan 2041. What has alarmed environmentalists?
One of the biggest causes of concern is the removal of the clause, “Natural Conservation Zones” (NCZ) from the 2041 Plan and replacement of NCZ with “Natural Zone” in the Draft Regional Plan 2041. Dropping the term “conservation” is a regressive step as it signals that conservation is no longer important in the 2041 NCR Regional Plan. In contrast, the NCR Regional Plan 2021, which has been in force since 2005, was crystal clear in including the Aravallis, forest areas and water in the NCZ. All existing sub-regional plans and master plans are already using the term NCZ and changing the term now will lead to further confusion in the implementation of these plans. Apart from this, the 2041 plan has been made without doing a land use change analysis of the NCZ which is required to assess the extent of change in the land over a period of time.
It’s shocking to see that the term Aravalli has not been mentioned once in the 2041 Plan. How can the government claim to formulate a development plan for Delhi NCR without acknowledging the presence of the Aravallis?
The tributaries of rivers Yamuna and Ganga have also been excluded from the NCR Draft Regional Plan 2041. How will it affect the water supply in this region?
Aravallis with their natural cracks and fissures have the potential to put two million litres of water per hectare in the ground every year and thus act as a critical water recharge zone for the water-starved Gurgaon, Faridabad, Delhi, other NCR cities, south Haryana and Rajasthan where the extraction is 300% more than the recharge and groundwater levels are dangerously low NCR Regional Plan 2021 included rivers, their tributaries and their floodplains in the natural conservation zone and even named some rivers such as Yamuna, Ganga, Kali, Hindon and Sahibi. However, the Draft Regional Plan 2041 has dropped the coverage of tributaries and flood plains. We highly oppose this move as the rivers, the tributaries and their floodplains are all crucial for water security and the protection of the riverine floodplain habitat is critical for the protection of riverine biodiversity.
The 2041 plan will provide protection only to the water bodies created by the acts of nature which are very few now but not to the old water sources like johads (community-owned small earthen check dams that capture and store rainwater and recharge groundwater) and talabs (man-made lakes) which have been drying up fast. The water table in many regions of Rajasthan especially in Alwar has been going down drastically. A detailed study of pre-monsoon water level data from 2002-2011 showed that groundwater in Alwar has been declining by 25 centimetres per year.
Without the Aravallis, life in northwest India is not sustainable. Aravallis are our most critical water recharge zone. There are a lot of natural cracks and fissures in the Aravalli hill which help in better percolation of rainwater into the ground.
What is the citizen-led movement, Aravalli Bachao Andolan?
Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement is a purely citizen-driven movement to save the Aravallis from destruction by mining, real estate, illegal encroachments, dilution of protective laws, toxic landfills, waste-to-energy plants and other such activities. It came into existence in January 2019 when we came to know about the amendment of the Punjab Land Preservation Act. They were amending the Act to allow real estate encroachments in Aravalli and to legalise the illegal constructions there. That’s how our campaign kick-started.
Environmentalists felt that the amendment in the Act would expose thousands of acres of land falling on the hills and foothills of Aravallis, which cover over 26,000 acres in Gurgaon and Faridabad districts to mining and real estate development.
We held one huge protest opposing this amendment. On 27 February 2019, the Act got amended. Fortunately, the Supreme Court put a stay on the amendment. As it was not withdrawn completely, we continued our protests and marked 27 February as Aravalli Black Day. We took out a funeral procession to get more attention and we were successful in creating a lot of awareness and getting media attention. Since then, there is no turning back and we have continued our work with full vigour, with every passing day more hands joining our movement.
What do you think is the impact of the destruction of Aravalli on the village ecosystems?
One of the biggest threats I have observed in rural areas is deforestation, especially in the Mewat region of Haryana. While working on the ground, I met a Sarpanch, Ibrahim Haji and through him, I got to know how earlier when the forests were managed by the native community, they used to feel a sense of ownership towards the forests and natural resources; hence they used to take care of the forests and natural resources. Since the pattern of ownership has changed and natural resources have come under the forest departments, the equation between native people and natural resources has changed dramatically.
The second biggest threat is mining, which continues to happen on a very large scale across the Aravalli range in Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Because of mining, the people in rural areas have been affected by air pollution from the dust released into the air due to the crushing and blasting of stones. People across Rajasthan especially are suffering from a lot of lung ailments. A lot of people around these ranges suffer from silicosis which is a long-term lung disease caused by inhaling large amounts of silica dust. The dust from mining activities also gets accumulated on the crops on farms which negatively affects the yield.
Mining has resulted in the local johads drying up and groundwater tables plummeting. I have also met people, many of them young children who got injured by the big stones from the blasting sites hitting their heads. People’s homes have got big cracks as a result of blasting activities.
The foothills of the Aravalli are the grazing grounds for the cattle and villagers call them charagah. Their cattle are also getting affected. When these hills are razed out of trees, it leads to the destruction of the green cover and plant species which means less grazing area for these cattle. On the one hand, pollution is increasing and on the other forests are decreasing.
We know two Supreme Court orders in 2002 and 2009 respectively, banned mining in the Aravalli hills of Faridabad, Gurugram and Mewat. How is illegal mining still going on?
All of this comes down to the supply and demand cycle. The increasing urbanisation and real estate construction activities have increased the demand for construction materials, which gets fulfilled by mining. Government should come up with alternative materials like fly ash bricks and earth bricks so that our hills are not razed to the ground to feed the never stopping construction. I worked with an organisation called Development Alternatives, which is one of the big NGOs in Delhi. They promote the use of alternative eco-friendly building materials and technology which is more sustainable and it is high time that such things are mainstreamed so we can protect our hills from being razed to the ground.
A 2018 report by the Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) says that 25 per cent of the Aravalli range has been lost due to illegal mining in Rajasthan since 1967-68. Another serious problem is the mining mafia which has been becoming powerful every passing day. In July 2022, a Haryana police officer was allegedly murdered by the mining mafia when he went to investigate the illegal mining happening in Mewat, Haryana. The mining mafia continues to become more powerful every passing day with no fear of the state.
Haryana has the dubious distinction of being the least forest-covered state of India. How will this plan affect the forest cover and the flora and fauna of the Aravalli mountain range?
As per a 2020 report prepared by the South Haryana Forest Department and submitted to NGT, the Aravalli range has lost more than 10,000 acres of green cover from 2012 to 2020. While the forest cover in the state of Haryana is the lowest (3.6%) in India and it should have been increased, the new plan has removed the target 10% forest cover for Delhi NCR which was there in the 2021 plan. This is even less than the national average forest cover which is 25% of the geographical area of the country as per the 2021 State of Forest Report. The irony lies in the fact that India has a target of bringing 33% of its geographical area under forest cover as envisaged in the National Forest Policy, 1988.
Considering how polluted Delhi-NCR is, the forest cover target should be increased to 20% or 30% in the 2041 plan. Removing the afforestation target completely from the regional plan is extremely regressive.
A survey done from 2019 to 2020 revealed that the Aravalli range harbours a rich variety of plants and animal species. Animals like leopards, striped hyenas, mongooses, and golden jackals have been found in Gurugram Aravallis. It is important to protect this critical wildlife habitat and a biodiversity hotspot with more than 400 species of native trees, shrubs, grasses and herbs. Every plant and animal species forms an integral part of the environment, hence it is important to protect their natural habitat which is the Aravalli range.
What is Aravalli Bachao Andolan demanding from the government and what changes should be made to the 2041 Draft Regional Plan?
Our group’s overwhelming demand is for the entire Aravalli range to be seen as one living ecosystem and declared a permanent biosphere reserve. We are asking the government to remove the environmental dilutions in the 2041 plan and give due importance to the geographical features such as the Aravalli range, forests, rivers with their tributaries and flood plains, and all-natural and man-made water bodies in the plan.
Another bone of contention is that the 2041 plan restricts the natural features that will have protection to only those features that are recognised in revenue records and notified under state/central acts. This is an unduly harsh restriction that will exclude over 80% of forests and Aravallis and even rivers, flood plains and water bodies– as very few of them meet both the proposed criteria. For example, most of the Aravallis in Haryana are neither notified nor mentioned in the revenue records as gair mumkin pahad (uncultivable land). We demand such dilutions to be rectified.
We are asking the government to strengthen the plan ecologically so that the right to breathe and water security should be ensured for millions of people living across the 25 districts in four states. Currently, we are asking the government to form a committee comprising different stakeholders like urban planners, ecologists, and environmental organisations to discuss this plan in light of environmental conservation.
How has the movement garnered public support and how successful has it been?
Since we started this campaign four years ago, the amount of awareness we have been able to create for Aravallis protection in Delhi-NCR and nationally is tremendous, be it through events such as forest walks, clean-up drives in the Aravallis, protests, outreach activities to schools & colleges, mentoring of students, email campaigns, Twitter storms and social media posts. We have submitted letters and signatures of more than 2.6 lakh citizens comprising school students and teachers, urban and rural citizens, Resident Welfare Associations, medical associations, industry bodies and pan India environment organisations such as Jal Biradari Mewat & Alwar headed by Rajendra Singh—the waterman of India, Aarey Conservation Group, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, Warrior Moms etcetera in September and October 2022 asking the government to remove the environmental dilutions in the NCR Draft Plan 2041.
Everything I learnt being a journalist on the ground and talking to different stakeholders like government officials, NGOs, and citizens, all of that experience has helped me a lot in this journey of being a conservationist and activist. I was working as an environment journalist for a Doordarshan series called “Living on the Edge” where we used to report on environmental issues from across the country. That was my window to learning about the environmental issues our country has been facing in urban and rural areas. Being a journalist really opened my eyes to how insensitive we have become to our natural resources. I sleep well every night knowing that I am doing what I can to save the oldest mountain range in the country.
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(Azra Ali is an environmental journalist, currently pursuing her Masters in Convergent Journalism from AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.)