The Haryana government on Friday lifted restrictions on the cutting of two tree species that form the bulk of the vegetation of the Aravallis hills.

The Haryana forest department issued an order exempting kikar (a kind of acacia) and mesquite (Prosopis Juliflora) from the provisions of the Punjab Land Preservation Act of 1900. The law prohibits the cutting of trees without forest department’s permission in 10 districts of Haryana.

The move would have opened a window for developers to clear the green patches of Aravallis in the prime-real estate areas of Gurgaon, Faridabad and other Haryana districts around New Delhi that are part of the National Capital Region.

“If this order is implemented, the Aravallis here will be denuded,” said a highly placed official in the state forest department.

Order is ‘a mistake’

However, Haryana’s Additional Chief Secretary of Forest Department Sunil Gulati denied that such an order had been issued. When this correspondent informed the official that he had the copy of the order, Gulati claimed it was a “typing mistake”.

“What we mean to say is for the ease of doing business we are allowing industrialists to get permission for felling of low-risk trees at the Divisional Forest Officer’s level,” Gulati said. “These two species are low-risk species.”

When asked if the government has issued a new order correcting or withdrawing Friday’s order, Gulati claimed his office had withdrawn the order on Saturday. However, he said his office was not working and would not be able to send this correspondent a copy of the withdrawal order.

Protection measures in limbo

Unlike the Aravalli hills in northern Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan, which are protected as forests under central and state laws, the Aravallis in southern Haryana have been mostly privatised or are owned by village panchayats. However, the forests on these lands have, so far, been protected by Supreme Court orders on plantations or the Punjab Land Preservation Act.

The Haryana forest official explained that while the Aravalli hills are spread over about one lakh hectares in the state’s six southern districts, only 40,000 hectares is protected by the Supreme Court orders. The remaining 60,000 hectares is protected only by the Punjab Land Preservation Act. Ninety per cent of the vegetation in these areas consists of mesquite, the official said.

A Supreme Court order of 1996 mandates that all patches of land which meet the criteria of the dictionary meaning of forests should be identified and protected as “deemed forests” irrespective of who owns them. In 2014, the forests ministry had asked the Haryana government to identify the deemed forests in the Aravallis. The Forest Survey of India said all the green patches with at least 10% canopy cover should be treated as forests.

Haryana initially refused to take part in the exercise, claiming there were no ‘deemed’ forests in the state. But it later retracted its position and said such areas were “yet to be determined”.

Real-estate firms will benefit

Chetan Agarwal, a forestry researcher, said the exemption order will lead to fait accompli in which the owners of private Aravalli lands could clear-fell their entire landholdings and claim their plots did not hold a deemed forest as per the dictionary meaning.

“The prime beneficiaries of this will be the real-estate companies that have built-up land banks and are applying for construction permits,” Agarwal said.

Corrections and clarifications: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the order was revoked.