Death on Aravalli: Stopping the squeeze on India’s oldest range between Gurgaon and Faridabad

As citizens come together to stop the destruction of Aravalli, is now the time for a new imagination of ecologically smart cities?

Citizens are coming together to pressurize the Haryana government to repeal its bid to destroy the forests that cover the Aravalli, the world’s oldest mountain range. Six leopards died in Mangar Bani, located between Gurgaon and Faridabad, within a year; one of them, a female cub, was mowed down a few days ago near the village while crossing the high-speed road that runs through her habitat.

Myriad native species of flora and fauna flourish in the sacred grove of Mangar Bani. Mangar is aunique microhabitat that local villagers have been fighting to defend from the onward march of real estate development. Distinctive to the Mangar grove is the native tree dhau (Anogeissus pendula) that grows thick, a small patch of ancient forest that has resisted the more recent vilayti keekar(Prosopis juliflora), the thorny stunted trees that are commonly seen covering the remaining vestiges of the ancient Aravalli range that surround Delhi.

mangar_1

Mangar Bani survives because it is consecrated ground. Oral narratives from surrounding villages abound with legend of Gudariya Baba, who is believed to have attained salvation in Mangar Bani forest. In deference to his spirit, locals have left the grove untouched, not even collecting firewood here.

But what place does the symbolism of a consecrated forest have in the parlance of development?

Precious little! So little, that the Haryana government is making attempts to declare the Aravallis to be non-forest land (the State has only 3.59% forest cover, the 2nd lowest in India). The lush green patch that you see from the Delhi Metro as you enter Gurgaon, the nilgai that sometimes will stare at you as you drive that stretch of road and the poor leopards, they will exist only in our memory and our imagination if the government were to have its way.

This move to grab the Aravallis is the final blow of a series of steps the government has taken over the years to bring this valuable stretch under urban development. In the 1970s, a government order that allowed privatization of the village commons let speculators and investors in and they’ve been holding on to these land parcels in the hope that one day, there will be a change in land use (CLU) that will turn the earth into gold. That’s exactly the idea behind declaring the Aravallis as non-forest land. [Also note a move by the Union Government to redefine what is a ‘forest’ that is worrying environmentalists at this time; the controversy was triggered by the Union Minister for Environment and Forests Mr Javadekar’s comment on television that ““notified forests and those with good canopy will be defined as forest”.]

Once the re-classification is done, Gurgaon and Faridabad will fuse together as one contiguous stretch of concrete jungle. No deer, no birds, no lush green; only more high-rise apartments, more malls, 6-lane highways, cars, smoke and dust. And of course, pots of money, in some pockets.

Sabotaging our own survival

Logically speaking, however, development that is meant for human inhabitation must care about the essential elements that support human life. Take water, for instance. The water table in this area has fallen dramatically as a result of intense development in Gurgaon. One has to dig an average of 50 feet to find groundwater in the city. In fact, Member of Parliament Rao Inderjeet Singh has reportedly brought the issue under the Prime Minister’s notice and called for an urgent revival of lakes and investments in rainwater harvesting.

Saving the Aravallis and indeed reforesting it is the surest step the administration can take to ensuring the economic and ecological survival of the cities of Faridabad and Gurgaon. While groundwater recharge is near impossible in the developed areas of these cities, the Aravallis take in an astonishing 20 lakh litres per hectare per year (@ 1/3 of annual rainfall of 600 mm). The economic worth of this water on its own has been estimated by the city’s active environmental community to be worth Rs 2 lakh per hectare/year (@ 10 paise/litre), with a Net Present Value of Rs 24.9 Lakhs (5% discounting, over 20 years).

Time for a different imagination

It is time to recognize and cultivate an alternate imagination to the idea of development. Picture this: The government takes a different track. It retains forest status and invites partnerships to systematically reclaim the forest by replacing keekar with native species on this stretch of Aravallis. Over a period of time—and yes, it takes several decades to grow a forest—Gurgaon and Faridabad proudly take their place in the global imagination for very different reasons. For being sister cities that were able to, through cooperation and hard work, grow back a forest. The seeds of such a pioneering movement have already been sown in the reclamation of a brownfield site—once a mining site—and its conversion into the fantastic 350-acre Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon, which has been achieved through the cooperation of NGO I am Gurgaon, the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon and corporate organisations. “In about 5 years, we have lovingly grown about 150 native species in our special on-site nursery. The intense community participation in the project, where now you can see over 120 species of bird over the year, is gratifying and a vindication of our vision that nature can reclaim man’s destruction,” avers Latika Thukral, co-founder I am Gurgaon.

Aravalli Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon

Volunteers at Aravalli Biodiversity Park

The world over, the idea of bringing nature back into the city has gained momentum. Urban agriculture and urban forestry are being put into practice not just in cities in the Global North, but also closer to home. In the heart of bustling Kuala Lumpur, authorities have worked hard to retain a 16-hectare stretch of original rainforest. The Bukit Nanas urban jungle has 204 species of plants and attracts thousands of tourists a year for walks, treks and adventure sports activities. A successful urban agriculture and fish-farming program in Surabaya, Indonesia offers additional income sources for poor communities. In China, many cities like Chengdu and Yichang have designed greenways for bicycle traffic run, offering an environmentally friendly and cheap mode of transport for citizens. Closer home, Mumbai restored a garbage dump to a nature park in Mahim way back on the ‘70s and Gurgaon is making a forest out of a mining site now!

What citizens want: Ecologically smart cities, not empty investments

Disillusionment is setting in among the residents of Gurgaon, who suffer poor governance and deteriorating quality of life despite rising costs of living; however, the community has been a fragmented one, unable to adequately represent government authorities to address the shortcomings of the city they have chosen to call home. Yes, there has been a slow and steady growth in citizen activism; even so, it was a pleasant surprise to see over 250 people answer a call by the city’s NGOs to gather together last month to protest against the government’s move to destroy the Aravallis. This was not just a community of tree huggers either; for the first time perhaps, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) from several parts of the city, an array of NGOs and concerned families came together in recognition of a common goal: to protect what they perceived as their lifeline, the green lung that is the Aravallis.

The protest against the government’s move to destroy the Aravallis

Aravalli_protest_2

Aravalli_protest_1

Says environmental educator Lima Rosalind, also a Gurgaon resident, “(Our) fervour is to develop an environmentally literate citizenry that can compete in our global economy; has the skills, knowledge, and inclinations to make well-informed choices….. In the case of such volte face, by an elected government … (we need to) reinforce our faith and put up a good fight to protect the lifeline of Haryana, the Aravallis.”

The online petition that citizens of Gurgaon and Faridabad have sent to the Chief Minister of Haryana calls for the protection of the State’s Aravalli hills and forests permanently “for future generations” to make Gurgaon and Faridabad “ecologically smart cities”. Given the din around smart cities in the last year, this simple plea to make cities ecologically smart through strategies that focus on long-term sustainable development appears the smartest of all!