What if they cross the hills to enter the village?”

“The government will make a boundary wall.”

“What if they jump over the wall?”

“Arre, it will be made high enough. They will have to do some jugaad.”

Sandeep and his wife Neelam, whose names have been changed at their request, were talking on a warm morning in March about the risk that a variety of wild animals might enter their village of Tikli in Haryana. The village, which nestles in the foothills of the Aravalli hills, is about 14 km from the skyscrapers of Gurugram city in the National Capital Region.

The Haryana state government plans to bring these animals into the Aravallis, just metres away from Sandeep and Neelam’s home, as a part of a proposed 10,000-acre Aravalli Safari Park. Neelam was worried that some of them might enter Tikli. Sandeep was confident that the government would ensure that this would not happen. After all, he said, it wasn’t just Tikli that would be facing this threat – the planned safari park will hug the habitations of 17 other villages across Gurugram and Nuh, both districts in Haryana.

Sandeep’s optimism also extended to the benefits of the safari. “The safari park will bring development to our village,” he said. “It will lead to income generation.”

The safari park was first publicly mentioned in May 2022, when the Haryana Tourism Corporation released a document inviting expressions of interest from those interested in designing, building and operating it. It noted that the park aimed to “substantially increase tourist’s footfall in the State” and that it would include different animal habitats, as well as hotels, restaurants, children’s parks, a cable car, an open-air theatre and various other features and facilities.

In a press conference on October 6, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar called the proposed park the “largest curated safari in the world”, one that would house reptiles, birds, lions, panthers, tigers, and cheetahs, non-native exotic animals, and an “underwater world”.

During the same conference, Khattar announced that the funds to run the park would be sourced from the Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority, or CAMPA, the body responsible for funding and overseeing India’s massive compensatory afforestation programme. The programme seeks to make up for deforestation activity through the planting of at least an equal number of trees as the number cut. Scientists have long questioned the very idea that new plantations can replace matured natural forests and compensate for the accompanying ecological loss.

Haryana’s proposal stretched the idea further – not only was it using compensatory afforestation funds to set up a jungle safari for tourists, Khattar announced that it was doing so using funds generated from the loss of a lush, tropical forest.

The chief minister said that the Aravalli park would be set up using funds that the authority would receive from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation to compensate for the deforestation of 130 square kilometres of tropical forest in the Great Nicobar, an island located 2,400 km away in the Indian Ocean.

The deforestation is to make way for a mega project worth Rs 75,000 crore in Great Nicobar – including an International Container Transhipment Terminal, an airport, a power plant, and a new township.

Khattar claimed that to compensate for this forest loss in Nicobar, the Centre had asked Haryana to “develop a forest area.” The safari was planned as one component of a larger compensatory afforestation plan that Haryana would execute to offset the deforestation in Nicobar.

For this, the Haryana forest department has demarcated 26,000 hectares of land in the Aravalli hills, according to news reports. The expression of interest document noted that of this, 10,000 acres, or 3,870 hectares, would support the Aravalli Safari Park.

Khattar also mentioned the safari park in Haryana’s latest budget, released in February 2023. In his budget speech, Khattar stated that the “preliminary work and identification of the land has been completed and the detailed design plan is under preparation”.

Land in Tikli that will be taken over for the 10,000-acre safari park. Funds for the park will be provided by CAMPA, which oversees India’s compensatory afforestation programme. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

On the ground, the administrative wheels had been moving fast. By December 2022, several villages had passed resolutions giving up parts of their “deh shamlat”, or common village land, for the park, without any compensation in return. Sarpanches of Tikli and three other villages that Scroll spoke to said that they did this when block development officers, who were acting on the orders of the district collector, telephonically informed them about the park. One sarpanch said that her office had received a letter requesting the panchayat to give up a portion of their lands for the park, but she was not willing to share the letter.

Sandeep said that to support the project, Tikli’s panchayat had given up between 20 and 25 acres of the forested area in the Aravallis through a panchayat resolution.

But the park and the compensatory afforestation project continue to attract significant criticism from conservationists. “Looking at the geographical differences between the two states, it is very clear that the forest that would be planted in the Aravallis in no way would develop the tropical forest resembling that in Nicobar or restore the socio-ecological losses,” explained Dr Sharachchandra Lele, a distinguished fellow in environmental policy and governance at the Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, or ATREE.

The zoo safari, specifically, has provoked considerable ire. “The expression of interest document makes it seem that commercialisation is the heart of the project, not conservation or ecology,” said Neha Sinha, a conservation biologist. “The proportions of the built-up area like eateries and theatres in the Aravallis is the problem. We need to question if the use of forest land is okay for such commercialisation and a zoo?”

Umesh Gupta, a resident of Bhondsi, another village whose lands will fall under the park, observed, “It looks like the authorities are only seeing revenue in the jungle safari right now.” He added, “When tourists come, there will be pollution with so many vehicles running, and a lot of plastic will be generated. The safari has to be planned keeping in mind these different aspects.”

Further, those who live close to the proposed park worry about how it will impact them. Some indicated that land ownership is a conflicted matter in these villages – as one middle-aged resident of Ghamroj informed me, around 90% of the houses in his village would qualify as “encroachments” onto forest land, though the residents had been living on the land for many years. “So the safari park will be a loss to our village if bulldozers are run on these houses to make space for it,” he said as he halted briefly on his scooter to buy samosas from a small shop.

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The plan to build a safari park using compensatory afforestation isn’t just being criticised on ecological grounds. Questions have also been raised about the legality of the move.

When any company or department of the state or Central government that deforests an area is directed to carry out compensatory afforestation, they have to pay two types of funds to the state where the afforestation is to be done. The first are funds to carry out afforestation. The second are the funds that are equal to the “net present value”, or NPV, of the forest being cut. This is a sum that is supposed to compensate for the loss of “biodiversity services” – a term for the various ways in which biodiversity benefits human beings and the environment, ranging from helping with regulating the climate to ensuring the pollination of crops.

The afforestation in the Aravallis is meant to compensate for the cutting of tropical forests in Great Nicobar. Experts note that such an approach is flawed. Photo: Rama Narayanan H, via Wikimedia Commons

While the first set of funds are to be used for plantations, the NPV funds are to be used for forest restoration and management activities, including soil and moisture conservation, pest and disease control, and forest fire prevention.

Forests are classified into categories such as evergreen, tropical, thorny and deciduous – depending on the type, and the forest’s density, the value of NPV funds to be deposited in the compensatory afforestation fund ranges from between Rs 4 lakh and Rs 10 lakh per hectare. This is much higher than the between Rs 49,000 per hectare and Rs 1,29,000 per hectare that is collected for planting trees.

ATREE’s Lele reasoned that because the afforestation funds are significantly lower than NPV funds, it was the latter that the Haryana government is likely to use for the safari park. “My assumption is that the rates of compensatory afforestation are too low to create a safari park,” he said. “So, Haryana would probably use the NPV money for the same.”

But, a perusal of the Compensatory Afforestation Rules, 2018, reveals that only specific activities are permitted to be carried out using the money, while certain activities are prohibited. Among those that are prohibited is: “Establishment, expansion and up-gradation of zoo and wildlife safari.”

Lele said, “The question is whether a safari park qualifies as compensatory afforestation? The simple answer is no.”

Scroll emailed questions about the use of funds to the CEO of CAMPA in Haryana, but had not received any response at the time of publishing. Scroll also sent questions to the Gurgaon district collector’s office, and the office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Haryana about the feasibility of the project, but had not received any response at the time of publication.

In a telephonic conversation for an earlier report, the CEO of CAMPA told Scroll, “If rules do not allow this transfer of funds for the safari, then we will not do it.”

Our car had stopped just short of where the rocky Aravallis began in Alipur village. The folds of the hills supported trees such as kikar, dhok, or the button tree, some medicinal plants, and a variety of shrubs. Unseen by visitors on the bright February morning, a variety of fauna also nestled within – blue bulls, deer, hyenas.

Inside the car, a young man related to Alipur’s sarpanch swiped photos on his phone. “If you come during the monsoon, you will see this very differently,” he told me, showing me a video of himself bathing under a cascading waterfall. “This waterfall appears in the hills,” he said, pointing towards a muddy path leading into the forest, into which a few local residents were driving. Then, he swiped some more to show me a zoomed-in photo, in which a blurry head peeked out from behind a rock in the hills – a leopard.

“We have spotted many. So far, the leopards have never harmed any people in the village,” said Deepak Dagar, the sarpanch of Alipur, who was also in the car.

The Aravalli region is home to a variety of fauna, including blue bulls, deer and hyena. The safari park will also bring in reptiles, lions, panthers, tigers, and cheetahs, among other animals. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

In Ghamroj, sarpanch Saadhna Rani said that in a small number of cases, leopards sometimes attack younger goats or small dogs. “Now if more animals will be kept here, what will happen to the leopards who live here already?” she said, her voice tinged with worry. “Where will they go?”

Sinha, the conservation biologist, also saw the matter as a cause of concern. “The use of a large, contiguous patch of Aravallis forests for this park will break down the forest cover for the free-ranging wild animals that already reside here,” she said. “It would confuse and displace the wildlife.” Sinha added that the brunt of the impact will be faced by villages close to the Aravallis, who might witness more large mammals wandering in their habitation. “This breakdown of forest is additionally bad for Haryana that already has a small forest area.”

Sinha explained that a year-long study conducted between 2021 and 2022 that the Bombay Natural History Society conducted of Asola, which also falls within the Aravallis, in Faridabad, had found a thriving wildlife population. Apart from eight leopards, the study also found sambar deer, hog deer and striped hyenas. They all face a threat from the jungle safari, Sinha explained.

Further, she explained, Nuh, another district whose land will be used for the safari park, is the “last functional Aravalli wildlife corridor” in Haryana. The corridor connects to Mangar Bani, a sacred grove in the Aravallis on the Delhi-Haryana border, which further connects to Asola.

“For the movement of all these free-ranging wildlife, such wildlife corridors play an integral role,” Sinha said. “The loss of it due to the massive scale and proportion of commercialisation of the safari park would be disastrous.”

But it isn’t only the existing wildlife of the region that is likely to face pressures – the animals that the government proposes to introduce, many of whom are non-native species, as Khattar stated in the press conference, are also likely to face challenges.

A forest officer from the area explained that the Aravallis have a dry topography and that finding water sources, especially in the summer, is already a major problem. “To provide for water in the summer, we incur a lot of expenditure to create water holes for the wildlife that already lives here,” he said, hinting at the harsh conditions that the translocated, non-native wildlife will face. Sinha, the conservation biologist, noted that considerable effort would be needed to create suitable temperatures in the habitats of the new animals that are brought to the Aravallis.

The hills are also crucial grazing grounds for the livestock that many residents raise. “Till about 3 in the noon, they will graze on the hills, and then we will come back down to a watering hole,” said a young man who, on the day I visited, was ushering his 60 or so goats to a path that led to the Aravallis in Tikli.

He had heard of the safari park, but claimed that no gram sabha was conducted before passing the resolution in his village to give the Aravalli land. “If this forest goes to the safari park, I’ll have to sell my goats,” he said. “There is no other space for grazing these many in the village.”

He then walked away, noticing that several of his goats were munching on flowers planted by the forest department in a herbal garden.

A caretaker of the herbal garden raised his voice, irritated at the goat keeper’s lack of attention. “Pahad lekar jao na inko,” take the goats to the hills, the agitated caretaker said.

The Aravalli hills are crucial grazing grounds for livestock that many residents raise. Herders in the region fear that they will lose access to these lands if they are taken over for the safari park. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Conversations with locals, forest department staffers and experts suggest that even the afforestation work will face major challenges.

Scroll’s reporting suggested that the government has done little to inform forest department staffers and local residents of the afforestation plan, despite the pomp with which the project was announced.

On the day I visited the area in late February, in a large forest department nursery in Haryana, a forest department official was overseeing the preparation of lines of saplings. A zone of saplings was especially dedicated to plants that grew in the Aravallis, which the forest officer called “hardy”. Once slightly matured, these saplings will be planted during the monsoon, along the foothills and the slopes of the Aravallis, as a part of the forest department’s annual plantation activities.

Apart from the annual plantations, the forest officer had also carried out compensatory afforestation projects in the past. However, he was not aware of the proposed one in Haryana, intended to compensate for deforestation in Nicobar. “We are aware of the safari park,” he said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

He added, “Two-three companies have also surveyed the Aravallis to apply for the tender for the project. But we have not been made aware of any compensatory afforestation activity yet in the Aravallis.”

None of the sarpanches Scroll spoke with had heard about the afforestation plans either.

The forest officer explained that conducting afforestation in the region was immensely challenging, and that plants had a low survival rate here. “The saplings that we plant in the plainer areas have a higher survivability rate, but the ones on the ranges have a lower rate of survival of about 60%,” the forest officer said. The biggest problem, he explained, was the lack of sources of water in the hills that can be used for continued watering of the saplings.

A nursery tended by the Haryana forest department. Locals and forest officials noted that plantation in the region was challenging, and that saplings had a low survival rate, of about 60%. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

In the villages we visited, too, residents spoke of water problems. In Tikli, many families, including Sandeep’s, have almost completely stopped farming due to the lack of water for irrigation. “In our village, groundwater is found at around 600 feet-700 feet,” Sandeep said. Residents also noted that water shortage impacted plantations. “Whenever the forest department plants any saplings on the Aravallis, they survive during the monsoon, and then most of them die after that,” Om Pal Chauhan, a resident of Bhondsi village said.

He added, “The forest department waters the saplings just once in the year and then leaves them to grow. But, young saplings need to be taken care of like children. They need constant monitoring, which the forest department is not able to do.”

Instead, in Bhondsi, a team of young volunteers led by Chauhan have been doing afforestation work. What started off as work they did on their own initiative soon found support from the panchayat – Chauhan said that the panchayat office gave his team around Rs 50 lakh to support the plantation. He explained that the money allowed them to create fencing for the planted area and barbed wire around each sapling, to prevent cattle and goats of the village from eating it – a measure, he added, that the forest department did not take.

In Alipur, Deepak Dagar and his team showed me young trees of peepal and neem on the foothills of Aravallis, and around a temple in their village. These have grown successfully due to the work of the village’s young volunteers and their constant monitoring, Dagar said. Here, too, residents had created a protective barrier around each sapling, using thorny branches. “Whoever can, waters the saplings with buckets whenever they are on the way to the forest,” Dagar said.

Apart from questions about the propriety of the safari project, and its poor likelihood of success, experts have also noted concerns about the land that has been allocated to it, and the conflicts that loom ahead over it.

Indeed, in Haryana, the land of the Aravallis, which are believed to be the oldest fold mountain range of India, is a mosaic of various kinds of ownership and land use patterns.

Parts of it belong to the forest department, while some are common lands of panchayats, known locally as deh shamlat, which are for the use of all village residents. Some portions are also under special protection as result of notifications issued under section 4 and 5 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900. Of the proposed land for the safari park, almost 3,500 acres are under this protection – according to the law, several activities, including stone quarrying, cutting trees for timber and collecting forest produce, are banned on this land.

There are patches, such as those that the Ghamroj resident referred to, mostly on the foothills, on which houses have been built, though most residents do not hold land titles. There are also politically influential and wealthy families who have built farmhouses in these areas, and secured land titles for their properties. Many of these are disputed: according to a joint committee report of the Union environment ministry in Gurugram district, up till 2020, the Haryana State Pollution Control Board had filed 513 cases in Gurugram alone, against “farm houses/structures” in violation of the Aravalli Notification, a set of rules that prohibit the cutting of trees, mining, and the building of structures on the Aravallis.

The land of the Aravallis is a mosaic of various kinds of ownership and land use patterns. Parts of it are settled on by villages, though most residents do not hold land titles. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

“Land ownership and land use regulations are greatly contested in these parts of Haryana,” said Manju Menon, a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research. “Without resolving these, bringing the same land under a new form of regulation through compensatory afforestation and the safari would only add to the confusion and not really aid conservation.”

In a forest department office in Haryana, the forest officer echoed this concern. He pointed to a whiteboard in his office which had a list of 15 ongoing cases.

“These are all the court hearings I have to attend this month for cases of forest land in the Aravallis that influential people have been able to get in their names in the revenue records,” he said. “Some have created farmhouses on them.”

It isn’t only the question of contested use and ownership that is likely to prove a problem in the acquisition of land for the safari park. Across villages that Scroll visited, sarpanches were also concerned about giving up valuable land for the project. In Ghamroj, a member of the sarpanch Saadhna Rani’s family, said on her behalf, “We were not comfortable with giving some of our deh shamlat land next to the main road for the project, because the land value is high. Initially, when the letter arrived from the district administration to give our lands for the park, we refused.”

Ghamroj is situated next to the highway that connects Delhi to Chennai via Mumbai, and is about 20 km from Gurugram’s last metro station, Huda City Centre. The lands closer to the road in Ghamroj have a value of between Rs 18,000 and Rs 20,000 per square yard. Several malls, high rise apartments and gated colonies are under development in the region.

On one of my visits, I spoke with a manager of a stall at a busy intersection near Bhondsi, a village adjacent to Ghamroj, which had a sign that read, “Plot for sale”. He said that he showed between 10 and 12 people plots each day. “Some are looking for farmhouses, and others for apartments,” he said. “They mostly come from Delhi and Gurugram.” He then explained that the plots he was showing would be part of a gated colony, with facilities like tiled roads, 24-hour water and electricity supply, and security guards, should I be interested.

In the past, Ghamroj’s panchayat coffers have also benefited from selling some deh shamlat to the private company Dabur. Bhondsi, also earned revenue by selling their panchayat lands in the past, to the government, for various purposes – specifically, to build a district jail, and a Central Reserve Police Force training centre, as well as a Border Security Force training centre. “We had received a compensation of Rs 72 crore back in 2003-’04,” said Dharamveer, husband of Bhondsi’s sarpanch.

The relative of Ghamroj’s sarpanch Saadhna Rani explained that in December 2022, the district collector’s office had asked the village to give up 435 acres of land for the safari project. But after several rounds of discussions with the office, he said, the village decided to retain 25 acres of that land. “We realised that we should keep our lands whose value will continue to increase in the future,” the relative said.

Their anxieties over giving up the rest of the land were assuaged after the office then gave them an oral commitment that the government would share with the panchayat 25% of the revenue that would be earned from the safari every year. Representatives of other panchayats, such as Tikli and Alipur, explained that they had not received such oral commitments, and would remain wary of them, unless they were given in writing.

The sarpanch’s relative also explained that residents of around 100 houses in Ghamroj were at risk of displacement because they were situated on the foothills of the Aravallis, and were part of the lands acquired for the safari park. The risk was particularly high because many residents of these houses did not have land titles.

“When the safari park’s work begins, there is likelihood of those being demolished. So, we even tried to take out those lands from the resolution we have passed,” the sarpanch’s relative said.

He added that he was not confident that those demands would be accepted by the government.

In village Alipur, just a kilometre away from Ghamroj, the sarpanch, Deepak Dagar, was wary of similar problems arising. While he was supportive of the safari park, he also pointed out that the foothills included some plots on deh shamlat land that were given to “below poverty line” families of the village under Indira Awaas Yojana, a free housing programme. “Those plots were not a part of the land we gave for the park,” he explained. “But in case the government asks for it later, we are prepared to fight it by saying that it was after the government’s approval that the plots were allotted to the families in the first place. Then how can they take it away from them? We will stand in support for these families.

The families that Dagar referred to live in a row of houses in the shadow of the Aravallis. Colloquially known as Alipur’s “Harijan basti”, the area primarily housed Dalit families. On the day of my visit with Dagar, many residents approached him with complaints – about a dysfunctional water pump, a broken gate leading to the forest, and youth consuming alcohol within the premises of the temple.

Residents were not aware of the proposed safari park, or that it could endanger their homes. “Safai hone wali hai?” Is there going to be a cleaning programme, a middle-aged woman from the basti asked me, confusing “safari” with “safai”, or cleaning.

In Tikli, Sandeep informed me that they too, placed some conditions on the land that they gave for the safari park. “We have refused to give the parts of lands on which our temples are constructed,” he said, referring to several temples that have been built in the hills that are associated with the village.

Ownership and control over land in the Aravallis remains highly contested. Some villages in the region are unwilling to give up lands on which temples have been constructed. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

In Hasanpur, another village that hugs the Aravallis, the sarpanch of panchayat Sakatpur, under which Hasanpur falls, decided to lay down conditions in the resolution in which they gave up land for the park. “We don’t have enough deh shamlat in Hasanpur for purposes like making a stadium, or graveyards for our Muslim brothers in the village,” the sarpanch, Chattar Pal, said, as we chatted in his office in Gurugram where he deals with construction material. “So, we agreed to give our forests only on the condition that we would receive 20 acres of public land in return. We added this into the resolution.”

The residents of the village are particularly concerned because of their experience with another project, a proposed city forest on 1,000 acres of the Aravallis. Sakatpur gave up 200 acres of their land through a resolution for the city forest. Delhi NCR has a number of such city forests, which are pockets of forests amidst the city – they provide biodiversity services, and also offer spaces in which people can maintain their physical health.

The forest department first started planting saplings for the city forest in 2019. But, by 2021, the department noted that none of the saplings had survived, and the city forest is far from becoming a reality.

In the meanwhile, the area began to see changes because of the expectation of the growth of the city forest: a string of dhabas came up on the road connecting Hasanpur to the forest, and the influx of traffic increased, as a result of which frequent accidents also began to occur. “Mahaul pura badal gaya hai,” the ambience has changed completely, Pal said in dismay. The road was earlier used by residents of his village for recreational walks. “The older people in my village don’t go out for walks anymore,” he said.

Like the upcoming safari park, the city forest was also portrayed as a good employment opportunity for Hasanpur’s residents. Reality, however, has been very different. “When some young people from our village went to the entrance of the park to put up food stalls, they were asked to return,” Pal said. Now, while they have passed a resolution in support of the safari park, “we want to discuss with the authorities that at least there should be some advantage to the village as well.”

In Tikli, too, Sandeep and his wife Neelam wondered about how the safari park would be used by the village’s residents.

“For now, we often go to roam in the jungle, to enjoy the greenery, to offer prayers in the temples, whenever we want,” Neelam said.

“So what, we can go later too, when the safari park opens,” Sandeep responded.

“Yes,” Neelam said. “But we’ll have to pay tickets then.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.