THE STORY OF VANISHING HILLS
“31 hills or hillocks have disappeared. If hills will disappear in the country, what will happen? Have people become ‘Hanuman’ that they are running away with hills?” - Justice(R) Madan Lokur
The Aravalli Range in North-Western India spanning over 692 kms is the oldest mountain range on Earth. The range spreads across four states of India stretching from Gujarat and Rajasthan in the South West to Delhi and Haryana in the North East. The Aravalli has been under threat due to continuous mining, unrestricted developmental activities, deforestation, land degradation, and encroachments. This has led to serious consequences like desertification, increase in frequency of dust storms, drying up of lakes, loss of biodiversity, human-wildlife conflicts, air pollution, etc. The Government of India in an attempt to halt the severe loss of the pristine ecology of Aravalli issued the Aravalli Notification in 1992 which prohibits activities such as mining, construction, cutting of trees, among others, without prior permission from the MoEF&CC. An Aravalli Afforestation Project was also launched with the financial assistance of the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF), Japan for a period of five years i.e. from 1992-1997 with the aim of carrying out, reforestation of barren hills and restoration of degraded forests and plantation on community land. Further, the areas in villages Khori Sirohi, Dhouj Alampur, Kot , Manger and Mohabatabad are protected by Section 4 and 5 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), 1900.
However, these initiatives were not sufficient in preventing the massive loss to the Aravalli hills. Over the years, the Supreme Court of India has been instrumental in protecting the pristine ecology of the Aravalli Range. The Supreme Court while considering the issue of depletion of ground water due to mining activities had banned all mining activities in the Aravalli range within 5 kms from the Delhi-Haryana border in May 2002. Subsequently, the Supreme Court in May 2009 suspended all mining operations in the Aravalli Hill Ranges falling in Haryana within the districts of Faridabad and Gurgaon, till the Reclamation Plan was duly approved by the Ministry of Environment and Forest, the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court, and the Government of Haryana. The Supreme Court had noted several large-scale illegal activities being undertaken by mining operators which resulted in destruction of pristine forest land, depletion of ground water and loss of wildlife habitat. The Supreme Court in October 2009 partially modified the May 2009 ban on mining and allowed the Government of Haryana to undertake mining activities over a designated 600 ha area, subject to fulfilment of certain conditions viz., issuance of Notification laying down guidelines for giving license, lease, preparation and implementation of the Reclamation and Rehabilitation Plan, and most importantly the revocation of all the existing mining leases.
However, even after the lapse of a decade, the State has not implemented the Supreme Court’s directions and the recommendations of the CEC. In the meanwhile, the Supreme Court in its Kant Enclave Judgement has restricted construction in closed areas under Section 4 and 5 of the PLPA, 1900. The ban on mining activity has been a boon to the Aravalli ranges for the past 18 years which has allowed the area to recuperate.
Illegal mining had devastated the forest, groundwater recharge, wildlife habitat and corridor movement which are now slowly recovering with the power of nature. However, the Government of Haryana in December 2020 filed an Affidavit requesting the Supreme Court to allow resumption of mining operations an area spanning 600 ha. Notably, about 238 ha of this 600 ha area is part of the ‘restricted area’ under the PLPA, 1900 and is covered under the Aravalli Plantation. As per Orders of the Supreme Court, these areas under the PLPA and Aravalli Plantation are protected under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and any kind of non-forest activity in this area requires prior permission of the Central Government under the Act.
It is also worth noting that since no definite criteria for selection of the area was predetermined, a private consultancy firm was engaged by the Government of Haryana. The firm identified a total area of 609.35 ha out of which 238 ha area is declared forest area under Section 4 & 5 of the PLPA and is covered under the Aravalli Plantation. The State of Haryana and the Central Empowered Committee seek to allow mining operations in this 600 ha area citing the economic needs of the State and the requirement of construction material for the surrounding NCR Region. The area which was identified in 2010 as being sparsely vegetated has not been assessed in the recent times to measure the natural regeneration of the forest area post the Supreme Court ban and analyse the feasibility of allowing mining. It is important that the economic wants do not end up undermining the environmental needs of the country. It is also important to note that Haryana is among the States having the lowest forest cover i.e. about 4%. The per capita forest cover has declined and will continue to decline if mining is allowed, thereby impacting the large settled population which is increasing day by day in the Faridabad and Gurgaon region. Further, India’s global reputation would be jeopardised if it is perceived to be giving out ecologically sensitive areas – which have received foreign contribution for plantations – for extractive mining. It must be ensured that a fresh village wise assessment of regeneration of forest area must be carried out, on the basis of which a Reclamation and Rehabilitation Plan is prepared and implemented for the entire region. Till this area is reclaimed and rehabilitated, no mining should commence in this last remaining ecologically fragile zone of NCR.
Prannoy Joe Sebastian is with Enviro Legal Defence Firm (ELDF), New Delhi. This story was published in a special arrangement with Paryavidhi - The Environmental Law Quarterly.