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Continual Diminishing of the Aravalli Hills

Assessing Intergenerational Equity

Shashikant Yadav (shashikant8@live.com) is a research scholar with the Energy and Resources Institute School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi. Anjali Sehrawat (anjalidabas@gmail.com) is an independent sociolegal researcher.

The Aravalli range is considered the “lungs” of the polluted National Capital Region. The failure of Haryana and Rajasthan governments to rein in the miners despite the Supreme Court’s orders to preserve the hills, has resulted in severe degradation of the hills, causing many of them to vanish.

Spread across Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Delhi, the 692 kilometre (km) long Aravalli range is considered a prime source of construction-related minerals. However, the same range is also considered the “lungs” for the world’s most polluted air of Delhi–National Capital Region (NCR) (Dayal 2019). This multi-utility of Aravalli hills range, from the business as well as public policy perspective, has made the very survival of the range a continuous struggle. The south-west range of the hills that covers the region of Delhi–NCR (including Gurugram and Faridabad) is the most degraded forest range in India (Kohli 2004). This is shocking as the same south-west range is responsible for the groundwater recharge of the “millennium city” Gurugram and of the most industrialised city of Haryana, Faridabad.

Historically, it is said that the Aravalli range checked the spread of the Thar desert towards the Indo-Gangetic plains, serving as a catchment of rivers and plains (Habib et al 2017). It is worth noting that the Aravalli range also provides habitat to 300 native plant species, 120 bird species and many exclusive animals like the jackal and mongoose. For Haryana, having the lowest forest cover at around 3.59% of the total forest cover in India, the Aravalli range is the only saving grace, providing the major portion of its forest cover (MoEF 2017). But due to its overexploitation, the range is no longer an effective green barrier. If left untouched, the Aravalli range would be enough to preserve humidity and sufficient rainfall in the Delhi–NCR. However, the ever-increasing disappearance of the green cover has led to several droughts in this region over the past four decades (M C Mehta v Union of India and Others 2004).

Considering the mushrooming of real estate projects in Delhi–NCR, the need for construction-related minerals is on an upsurge. However, for catering to this need, the only dense forest cover of Delhi–NCR is at stake and is no longer considered effective for providing clean air, water, or soil as it used to, decades ago. At this point, the key stakeholders, namely government, operators (miners and real estate corporations), and communities, must introspect upon the decades of apathy and must implement precautionary measures to stop further degradation of the range. The pursuit should be to provide the best possible bounties of the Aravalli range, in quality as well as quantity, to the next generation.

Court’s Order and Violations

In the past two and a half decades, more than 565 environmental crimes/matters have been reported in the south-west region of the Aravalli range. Five hundred and twenty-four cases have been filed in the environment courts, out of which 200 are still pending. However, the present condition of the hills range indicates a failure of the law in its implementation (Arora 2018). The first public interest litigation (PIL) to curb illegal mining in Aravalli was filed in 1985, and has been followed by numerous other PILs from 1992 till 2009—all of them concerning the extensive mining operations in the region. In a landmark order of 1992, the Supreme Court ordered that the Aravalli range should only be subject to mining and industrial activities that are preapproved from the central government. However, the order was not well implemented, and as a result, in May 2002, the Supreme Court banned all mining (as well as pumping of water) in an area up to 5 km from the Delhi–Haryana border, and had put restrictions on the mining activities in the Rajasthan region of the Aravalli.

Subsequently, in order to bypass the purview of the Supreme Court’s order, the Rajasthan government, through an amendment, redefined “hill,” stating that any raised area less than 100 metres (m) cannot be categorised as a “hill.” The Supreme Court, however, put a blanket ban on mining in 2009, across all the hills of the Aravalli. Yet, mining continued illegally. In 2018, the Supreme Court expressed shock over the finding that 31 Aravalli hills have vanished in Rajasthan alone (MoEF 2017). Corresponding data is still not available for Haryana.

Like mining in Rajasthan, the illegal construction activities in Haryana shocked the Supreme Court in 2018. Although the Supreme Court categorically banned real estate activities in the Aravalli range falling under Haryana, the Haryana government not only gave a nod to the construction projects, but also actively aided in the running of these projects. Over this the Supreme Court had observed:

State of Haryana has been supporting the illegalities of the applicant (a construction company) despite strong resistance from the Forest Department of the state of Haryana. There is no doubt that at the end of the day, the state of Haryana comes out in a very poor light and must be held accountable for its conflicting and self-destructive stand. (M C Mehta v Union of India and Others 2018)

More recently, in February 2019, the Haryana legislative assembly amended the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) which was effectuated in 1900 for “conservation of sub-soil water” and “prevention of erosion,” by giving the state the power to “regulate, restrict or prohibit” certain activities, including “clearing or breaking up” of land. This amendment also removed several hills of the Aravalli range from the category of “restricted area,” making around 63,000 acres of the Aravalli range available for construction and mining activities (Kumar 2019). By the same amendment, the Haryana government also attempted to legitimise several illegal constructions in the range. However, the Supreme Court, through an order, promptly nullified the amendment stating, “it is really shocking that you (Haryana government) are destroying the forest … It is not permissible” (M C Mehta v Union of India and Others 2018).

Intergenerational Equity

Illegal mining in the Aravalli range is not a clear-cut case of just the governments’ apathy, but the reasons also include the muscle power of strong mining lobbies and “influential colonisers” in Delhi–NCR. The Supreme Court highlighted this issue stating,

Because of a complete lack of any concern for the environmental and ecological degradation carried out in the Aravalli hills by influential colonisers and what appears to be a very strong mining lobby in Haryana, the damage caused to the Aravalli hills is irreversible. (T N Godavarman Thirumulpad v Union of India and Others 1996)

The price of the power dynamics and the resultant exploitation of such natural resources will also be paid by future generations. Therefore, it is necessary to track down the transfer of the Aravalli range-related equity from one generation to the next in the legal context. The concept of “intergenerational equity” was introduced in the Stockholm Declaration, which stated:

The natural resources of the earth, including the air, water, lands, flora and fauna and especially representative samples of natural ecosystems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of the present and future generations through careful planning or management, as appropriate. (United Nations 1972)

Further, the concept was elucidated in the Rio Declaration that states:

The right to development must be fulfilled to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations. (United Nations 1992)

India, being a party to Stockholm Declaration and the Rio Declaration, has built a running narrative of intergenerational equity through its judicial pronouncements. In reference to a writ petition filed in 1995 against illegal mining and constructions in the Haryana-based Aravalli range, the Supreme Court expressed its concern thus:

It is not only the future generations that have to pay a heavy price for this environmental degradation, but even the present generation is paying a heavy price for the environmental and ecological degradation since there is an acute water shortage in the area as prophesied by the Central Ground Water Board. (M C Mehta v Union of India and Others 2018)

However, the recognition of the rights of the present as well as the future generations has been ignored by the state authorities. They are bent on leaving only the remnants of the Aravalli range for the generations to come. Given that intergenerational equity is the “law of the land” in India and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution recognises the “right to clean environment” (Subhash Kumar v State of Bihar and Others 1991), it is imperative to see the steps taken by state authorities as the violations of fundamental rights of the future generations.

The Way Forward

In pursuit of intergenerational equity, it is important that the present generation take action to preserve the resources at hand and the states conduct the required studies to decipher the possible solutions, and then implement the precautionary measures for protecting the Aravalli range. In this direction, the Supreme Court has laid down the “precautionary principle,” stating that the central and/or the state governments, while considering a project, must foresee environmental degradation and shall prevent such degradation without waiting for scientific evidence to show that there will be irreparable damage to the environment (Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v Union of India and Others 1996).

In 2010, the term “precautionary principle” was adopted by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Section 20 of the NGT Act, 2010 specifically states that the tribunal can apply the precautionary principle while passing any order, decision, or award. The NGT further establishes that the precautionary principle has a twofold obligation: first, the project proponent must take all expected precautions to prevent pollution resulting from its activity; second, it has to take into consideration the principle of intergenerational equity and therefore, be cautious that it causes no irretrievable damage to natural assets.

However, the developments in the Aravalli range have been conducted in complete oblivion of the laws, resulting in environmental anarchy in the region. The international jurisprudence, adopted by India, states that even if there is a scientific uncertainty over the apprehended damage to the environment by a proposed project, state authorities must take all the precautionary measures before implementing the project. In addition, the implementation of precautionary measures is considered on the basis of four elements, namely: the level of threat that warrants action, the level of evidence required to avoid taking precautionary action, the range of actions that are under consideration, and the necessary level of force of the actions.

In the case of the Aravalli range, the reports from the Forest Survey of India, the Supreme Court’s observations, and several civil society studies establish the threat of mining and construction activities over the natural resources and people. However, the state authorities never justified their inaction towards implementing the precautionary measures through evidence or any scientific findings, nor did they come out with a range of actions that can be adapted to make mining and construction-related operations judicious. Resultantly, the states’ inaction is often picked up by the Supreme Court through the PILs in pursuit of establishing the intergenerational equity.

However, the need of the hour is that the authorities must learn from their “history of (mis)conduct,” and state governments must constitute committees to measure the anthropogenic impacts on the Aravalli’s ecology over the past seven decades. After evaluating these impacts, the respective governments must implement a strategy consisting of precautionary measures taking into consideration the fundamental rights of the future generations over the Aravalli range.

References

Arora, Shilpi (2018): “Raze All ‘Illegal’ Buildings, Impose SC Order on Entire Aravalis,” Times of India, 13 September, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/65789829.cms?utm_source=c... text&utm_campaign=cppst.

Dayal, Sakshi (2019): “Greens in the Red: Why Aravallis Matter to National Capital Region,” Indian Express, 4 March, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/punjab-land-preservation-act-greens-in-the-red-aravalli-supreme-court-order-haryana-government-5609362/.

Habib, B, G Talukdar, P Jain and A Bhasin (2017): “Mapping Landuse/Landcover Patterns in Aravallis Haryana with Reference to Status of Key Wildlife Species,” Project Completion Report, Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun and Haryana Forest Department.

Haryana Forest Department (2018): “PLPA, 1900 Notification (Sections 3, 4 and 5),” http://haryanaforest.gov.in/en-us/Overview/PLPA-1900.

Kohli, M S (2004): Mountains of India: Tourism, Adventure & Pilgrimage, New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company.

Kumar, Ashok (2019): “Haryana Govt Misleading People on PLPA Amendments,” Hindu, 4 March, https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/haryana-govt-misleading-people-on-plpa-amendments/article26425973.ece.

M C Mehta v Union of India and Others (2004): Writ Petition (Civil) No 4677 of 1985, Supreme Court judgment dated 18 March.

(2018): Writ Petition (Civil) No 4677 of 1985, Supreme Court judgment dated 11 September.

MoEF (2017): “State of Forest Report 2017,” Forest Survey of India, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Dehradun, http://fsi.nic.in/forest-report-2017.

Subhash Kumar v State of Bihar and Others (1991): AIR, SC, p 420.

T N Godavarman Thirumulpad v Union of India and Others (1996): Writ Petition (Civil) No 202 of 1995, Supreme Court judgment dated 12 December.

United Nations (1972): “Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment,” Stockholm, 5–16 June, http://www.un-documents.net/aconf48-14r1.pdf.

— (1992): “Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development,” Rio de Janeiro, 3–14 June, https://www.un.org/documents/ga/conf151/aconf15126-1annex1.htm.

Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v Union of India and Others (1996): Writ Petition (Civil) No 914 of 1991, Supreme Court judgment dated 28 August.

Updated On : 24th May, 2019

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