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Saving the Aravallis: Documenting Gurgaon’s persistent environmental activism

Much has been said and written about the urbanism of Gurgaon. Amidst uproar and negativity over the general failure of governance, a core group of citizens has been persistently highlighting pressing issues relating to environmental conservation. More specifically, they have brought attention to the urgent need to conserve the sections of the Aravallis that runs through Haryana. To bring these concerns to the State government, citizens walked together a year ago (I blogged about it then), and we did so again today.

What did our movement achieve and what drives us now to continue efforts to engage with the government on issues that have been particularly hard to raise in India at large, but more particularly in a State where mining and real estate interests are politically powerful and directly pitted against us?

This time, last year: A specific call to action to save Mangar Bani

The trigger for the call to action, when we gathered at Kachra Chowk a year ago on 26th April 2015, was the imminent changes in land use regulation that would permit the declassification of forest land and open it to real estate development. A group of focused citizens, some of whom are ecologists, geologists and environmental experts, made convincing arguments that underscore the need to protect the Aravallis to ensure the survival of cities like Gurgaon and Faridabad. These arguments revolve around the basics, like protecting the main water recharge zone for the region, as well as more evolved arguments that call for a different imagination of the city as a place that embraces nature. As a powerful symbol of what nature was capable of, the group decided to focus on the protection of Mangar Bani,  a sacred grove protected by local communities that lies between Gurgaon and Faridabad. I wrote last year about the movement, during which a successful online petition was floated and many citizens, children included, were involved at the time.

These concerted efforts resulted in the Haryana government announcing a protected status for Mangar Bani in early 2016. It is extremely positive that 677 acres of Mangar Bani Sacred Grove has been identified for protection, plus a buffer of between 60m to 500m will be taken up for restoration. This amounts to a buffer area of 1100-1200 acres, which will act as a major watershed for the region as well as restore the already rich biodiversity of the Aravallis. The progressive work on mapping and demarcating these areas has been encouraging, says Chetan Agarwal, who has been deeply involved in the research on Mangar Bani.

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Pushing the envelope for long-term benefits

Today’s walk was intended to demand a follow through of the promises made. The final notification for the Mangar Bani Sacred Grove remains pending and the group is highlighting the urgency of this step. After notification, corresponding changes are required to be notified in records and plans, in order for the protection status to have adequate impact on future development plans for Gurgaon and Faridabad.

And Mangar is only the first step. Much more needs to be done to protect the fragile Aravallis that are facing sever environmental degradation. First, the group urges the State government to notify the Aravallis around Gurgaon as a city forest. The city’s only forested area, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, has been developed from a brownfield mining site. A collaborative effort of the citizens and municipal government, ABP has become a paradise for citizens to experience open space and nature. But there is considerable opportunity to do much more. By protecting the existing Aravalli areas and developing them as city forests, Gurgaon will join the illustrious list of global cities that recognize and celebrate the health benefits of sensitively integrating forest areas into urban development. The benefits of forests in improving air quality, and long-term benefits of living in proximity to nature are well documented and practised by cities across the world.

Second, the group requests the State government to identify sanctuaries and national parks in Haryana’s Aravallis. Mangar Bani, for example, should be made into a sanctuary. The Aravallis as a whole should be declared a deemed forest and made part of the Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ). There exist today subtle ways to keep large areas of the Aravallis out of the NCZ in a ‘to be determined’ category. This category must be deleted, so that the commitment to conservation is clear and strong. Areas of the Aravalli foothills that have been currently kept out the the NCZ are equally important and must be included. Further, the eco-sensitive zones for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary must stretch to include major lakes – Damdama, Badkhal, Dhauj, and also the mining pits which have exposed groundwater and the buffer for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary on the Haryana side increased. Finally, privatised land in the Aravallis must be restored to panchayat ownership.

These actions will give firm signals against future exploitation of these ecologically sensitive areas for real estate and infrastructure development. Furthermore, these steps appear critical for the survival of these cities, critical as they are to the recharge of groundwater in the region.

Globally, environmental gains for cities have almost entirely resulted from sustained and informed citizen activism. There is no glamour in this sort of activism. It is extremely hard work and I salute all those who are working hard behind the scenes to keep these issues burning and alive in Gurgaon. Walks like today’s gives citizens like me an opportunity to do our little bit. We must hope that every little bit counts.

A matter of survival: Khattar’s govt must protect the Aravallis & save Gurgaon

A group of passionate environmentalists, citizen activists and some thin walls of bureaucracy stand between the bulldozers and the remaining Aravalli forests suurounding the city of Gurgaon, where I live. Successive governments have permitted the not-so gradual destruction of the Aravallis at the behest of powerful real estate developers (this latest piece in The Wire finds evidence of the alliance between Hooda-led Congress govt and DLF, for instance).

Mangar Bani is an untouched part of the Aravallis, revered and protected by local communities and a glimpse into what this habitat could be if we were to think ecologically smart!

Mangar Bani is an untouched part of the Aravallis, revered and protected by local communities and a glimpse into what this habitat could be if we were to think ecologically smart! Photo credit: Vijay Dhasmana

Today, the Khattar-led BJP government in Haryana has the ability to withdraw that nail in the coffin that the Congress drove in, shortly before it lost power in the State. By adding the clause ‘except in urbanisable areas’ to the inclusion of the Aravalli hills in the Natural Conservation Zone on Page 294 of the Sub-Regional Plan 2021 for the Harya part of the NCR, it sought to not just favor a single project or developer but in fact pave the way for a large-scale development of the Aravalli hills.

In their online petition, citizen activists have made a strong case for saving the Aravallis. In no simple words, they demand that Khattar remove the above-mentioned clause in the interests of the ecological survival of Gurgaon and Faridabad, whose rapidly dwindling water supplies depend on these forests. In my piece in The Alternative, I highlight the need for an alternate imagination that re-imagines urbanisation (and indeed tourism, industry, economic development) to include nature.

However, I’m the first to acknowledge that citizen pressure is inadequate. How do we impress upon CM Khattar that saving the city is imperative to, in the long-term, profiting from it? How do we convince politicians, who think in five-year caches, that survival is at stake here?

Going beyond that, how does a landlocked small State like Haryana re-envision its fortunes even as it milks the promise of high-profit real estate development in the shadow of the capital, Delhi? Let’s not be naive, the milking is bound to happen. But certain ‘hard limits’ must be recognized in the interests of human survival and quality of life. And the Aravalli forests are certainly one of them!

Saving the Aravallis: A new imagination for the ecologically smart city

Activism is not a choice, but a means of survival. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rewards of embracing activism, mentioning our family’s weekend participation in a protest to protect the Aravallis around Gurgaon and Haryana. That urban expansion has become a threat to nature is something that has bothered me for a while, but I also believe there must be ways to co-exist and imagine a new kind of city, where the richness of nature and the density of humans can co-exist and even benefit from each other. Or at least the latter from the former!

Mangar Bani is an untouched part of the Aravallis, revered and protected by local communities and a glimpse into what this habitat could be if we were to think ecologically smart!

Mangar Bani is an untouched part of the Aravallis, revered and protected by local communities and a glimpse into what this habitat could be if we were to think ecologically smart! Photo credit: Vijay Dhasmana

I’ve tried to articulate this vision in an article for The Alternative published recently. I welcome your comments and views on this piece: Death on Arravali: Stopping the squeeze on India’s oldest range between Gurgaon and Faridabad

Moreover, I would urge you to read and sign our petition to the Chief Minister of Haryana that urges the State to protect these forests and work towards making Gurgaon and Faridabad ecologically smart cities.

Through Rajasthan’s forts, hunting lodges and rocky scenery: #GirlyRoadTrip Day 2

After we crossed over into Rajasthan, we found ourselves in Dungarpur District. This was the prettiest terrain I’ve seen in a while. Hilly, with lush green pockets of farmland, forest areas interspersed with villages, rocky hill faces, the occasional fort and the highway snaking through it…the journey lulled me into sleep here. _DSC5342_DSC5349_DSC5359_DSC5353_DSC5368_DSC5372_DSC5382

I was jolted awake by a most bizarre set of voices. Two Google Auntys were talking at once! One was panicking, the other was issuing instructions more calmly. Nupur didn’t know which Google Aunty she was supposed to listen to and Rachna was saying “Listen to me, listen to me!”. What’s more, our car had braked to a halt at a rather strange turn off the highway. A bit alarmed, it took me a few minutes to figure out that the girls had decided to stop at Shikar Badi, Udaipur for an early lunch. So while Google Aunty 2 was taking us to Shikar Badi, Aunty 1 was still taking us to Ajmer, our next night halt destination! In this truly hilarious state, collapsing in giggles, we criss-crossed some zillion tiny lanes to finally find ourselves at this quaint little hotel, part of the HRH Group run by the Maharana of Mewar.

Shikar Badi had nostalgia value for two of us, Rachna and me. While Rachna had worked on an event at this location (she used to work for a large events company), I had lived here while working on an architectural heritage assignment for the Mewar Group way back in 1999! It hadn’t changed much, the hotel. We were happy to lounge around the pool while the courteous staff got us tea and snacks.

The restaurant

The restaurant

Originally the hunting lodge of the royal family of Mewar, Shikar Badi is built around a natural watering hole. It now houses the hotel, a stud farm, cricket grounds and a small private airport! Check out the view...

Originally the hunting lodge of the royal family of Mewar, Shikar Badi is built around a natural watering hole. It now houses the hotel, a stud farm, cricket grounds and a small private airport! Check out the view…the wilderness in contrast with the laid out gardens we sat in…

The watering hole had some bird life, but not much water or activity

The watering hole had some bird life, but not much water or activity

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Exploring the gardens

Exploring the gardens

Chilling out, fooling about :)

Chilling out, fooling about 🙂

We, on the other hand (and you know by know that food has been a big part of this experience!), had Laal Maas on our minds at 11:30am! It was clearly hard for us to mask the disappointment when the staff informed us that lunch is served only at 12:30pm and it was absolutely darling of them to get the dishes we wanted prepared earlier! As it happened, satiated with the most amazing meal of laal maas, gate ki sabzi and tandoor rotis, we set off for the last leg for the day before one pm…

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