The National Capital Region Draft Regional Plan 2041 is proposed as the next iteration of the NCR Regional Plan 2021, which has been in force since 2005.

The draft plan is positioned as a long term plan for the development of the region – which comprises the national capital Delhi and certain districts of the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan – with citizen-centric infrastructure aims to be in tune with the global Sustainable Development Goals.

Rolled out by National Capital Region Planning Board, or NCRPB, the draft, which was released at the end of 2021 and open till the start of this year for public opinions and suggestions has faced flak from the environmental community for being regressive and threatening air quality, groundwater recharge, forest cover and wildlife habitat across the 25 districts of the region.

While the plan promises to contour the region’s development while balancing ecology, it has been touted as a blow to the conservation of the Aravali hill range that has been fighting for survival since decades.

The Jal Mahal in the Man Sagar Lake in Udaipur with the Aravali hills in the background. Credit: Bishnu Sarangi via Pixabay.

In the 2041 version of the plan, the term “natural zone” now refers to geographical features such as mountains, hills, rivers, water bodies and forests which shall be notified for conservation under central or state laws, and shall be recognised as such in land records.

With this update, it restricts conservation to only those features that are (a) notified under state/central acts and are also (b) recognised in revenue records. Additionally, a waterbody can be considered in the “natural zone”, as per the draft plan, only if “created by the action of nature” which lands up threatening majority of water bodies in the National Capital Region as they have a human element in their creation.

The earlier version of the plan used the term Natural Conservation Zone which has now been replaced with Natural Zone. An area categorised as a natural zone does not require mandatory conservation like a natural conservation zone does, say environmentalists. This is particularly of note given that the sensitive ecosystem of Aravalis is currently termed as a natural conservation zone.

Additionally, note environmentalists, the determination of a natural zone through land or revenue records, will exclude over 80% of forests, Aravalis and even rivers, flood plains and water bodies. Only a few of them meet both the proposed criteria of notification and presence in revenue records.

For example, most Aravali hill areas in Haryana are neither notified as forests, even revenue records mention them asgair mumkin pahar” (uncultivable land) and “bhood” (sandy soil area). Almost 50,000 acres of the Aravalis in Haryana have not yet been notified as deemed forests under any law removing it from protection under the new plan 2041.

Additionally, area under forest has declined from 4.02% reported in the National Capital Region Plan 2021 to 3.27% under plan 2041. Even the target, “total forest cover proposed to be 10% of the total area of the region of the NCR Regional Plan 2021” has been dropped from the new plan 2041. This has put forest conservation or afforestation out of priority list.

Threat of dilution of plan

The plan empowers state governments to decide on fate of natural resources. The new plan has environmentalists up in arms who state that the regional plan is a guiding document for sub-regional plans that state governments develop.

They fear if the guiding document itself is diluted, the states can then dilute it further threatening the Aravalis and other crucial natural ecosystems in four north Indian states of Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

“The new plan will negatively impact the sustainability of NCR region and prove fatal for Aravalis. More than 3220 citizens, ecologists, conservationists and environment organizations from across India had sent emails to all concerned including NCRPB with objections. We demand our right to forests, clean air and water security,” stated Neelam Ahluwalia, founder member, Aravali Bachao Citizens Movement.

The Aravali hills near Udaipur. Credit: TeshTesh, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Aravali is our only water and air recharge zone. Destroying it and then making eco-tourism hubs will do no good. We will be headed for an ecological catastrophe if this plan is implemented and this needs to be rolled back. Also, it defies many legal precedents,” said environmental activist Lt Col (Retd) Sarvadaman Singh Oberoi, adding that agencies such as the National Capital Region Planning Board are not prioritising the environment even though it is a key priority in the Prime Minister’s speeches.

With hue and cry surrounding the plan, the last meeting of the National Capital Region board, which was meant to stamp the implementation of plan, was cancelled.

Additionally, the Prime Minister’s Office, reacting to strong objections from all quarters, has sought a response from the National Capital Region Planning Board and the urban affairs ministry on the draft Regional Plan 2041 document which was finalised despite criticism from the environment ministry and objections from large number of citizens.

The Aravalis is oldest mountain range and a diverse ecosystem running in around 692 km across Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan. As per the Central government records, 31 hills or 25% of Aravalis have already been lost to illegal mining, deforestation and encroachments. The state governments of Haryana and Rajasthan have always been under fire for repeated attempts to dilute its conservation.

This article was first published on Mongabay.