Weeks before it issued an order to lift curbs on the felling of mesquite trees in the Aravallis, the office of the Additional Chief Secretary of Haryana had pushed the state forest department to allow a real estate firm to chop trees of the species on a plot of land, despite objections from the local forest staff, documents show.

Mesquite (Prosopis Juliflora) is the predominant species in the Aravallis, a hill range that runs through Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. Cutting of trees without the forest department’s permission is prohibited in parts of Haryana, including the National Capital Region areas of Faridabad and Gurgaon, under the Punjab Land Preservation Act of 1900.

Scroll.in had reported on Sunday how the Haryana government, through the Additional Chief Secretary of Forests S K Gulati, had exempted mesquite and kikar trees from this requirement. These two species form the bulk of the vegetation of the Aravallis hills. Environmentalists said the order could have laid the range bare and benefitted real estate firms. However, Gulati later claimed the order was a “typing mistake”.

Documents seen by Scroll.in now show that weeks before issuing the order, Gulati’s office had been pushing the forest department to allow a real estate firm, Bharti Land Limited, to cut mesquite trees in the Aravallis.

Bypassing concerns

On September 18, 2015, Bharti Land Limited, a real estate firm, applied for permission to chop mesquite “bushes” on a 52-acre plot in Faridabad where it is building a housing project. The environment clearance for the project laid the condition that no trees would be cut on the land. In its application to Haryana’s forest department, the company used the term “bushes”, seeking permission to cut them.

The firm’s application was “kept in abeyance” by the Divisional Forest Officer of Faridabad. The officer objected to the application on the ground that the company’s land fell under the “Gair Mumkin Pahar” category (village common lands that later passed into private ownership). The status of forests on such lands was yet “to be decided” by the state.

Overruling the Divisional Forest Officer’s concerns, Gulati’s office directed the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, the seniormost forest official in the state, at least twice – on April 24 and May 1 – to “accord necessary approval for felling of mesquite trees” under the Punjab Land Preservation Act of 1900. Gulati’s office asked the Chief Conservator’s office to inform the government once the permission was granted.

Contacted by Scroll.in, Gulati claimed ignorance about the matter. Bharti Reality, the parent company of Bharti Land Limited, confirmed it had applied for mesquite felling permission and was waiting for the approval.

Protections under law

In 2014, the Supreme Court had ordered that the Aravalli hills must be protected at any cost. The Central Ground Water Board has identified the Aravalli hills as a natural groundwater recharge zone. The groundwater flows outwards in all directions, including towards Delhi. Virtually all of the limited forest cover of south Haryana is concentrated in the Aravallis.

Unlike the Aravalli hills in northern Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan, which are recorded and protected as forests under central and state laws, the Aravallis in southern Haryana is mostly owned by village panchayats or have been privatised – several plots are owned by private individuals and companies.

However, the prohibition on cutting on trees under the Punjab Land Preservation Act and policy restrictions on constructions on “Gair Mumkin Pahar” land in the Aravallis have so far stopped private parties from converting these patches in Delhi’s vicinity into real estate hubs.

The Regional Plan for the National Capital Region 2021, in force since 2005, identifies “Gair Mumkin Pahar” in the Aravallis as natural conservation zones. A Supreme Court order of 1996 also mandates all patches of land that meet the criteria of the dictionary meaning of forests should be identified and protected as deemed forests.

In April 2015, the state government decided that the status of forest areas other than the recorded forests falling in the natural conservation zones would be marked as “status to be decided”. The status of such lands, it said, would be finalised after the Union environment ministry comes up with the criteria to identify forests as per the dictionary meaning.

In June 2016, a state government committee for the delineation of natural conservation zones estimated that altogether 7616.77 hectares of land was marked as “status yet to be decided” in Gurgaon and Faridabad.

The case of Bharti Land Ltd

The permission to Bharti Land Ltd for cutting trees was kept in abeyance by the forest department on the ground that the company’s land fell on land in the Aravalli hills marked as “status yet to be decided”.

Gulati’s office, however, informed the forest department on May 1 that none of the lands falling under the natural conservation zone come under the category of “status yet to be decided”. It thus claimed Bharati Land Ltd’s plot did not constitute the forest component of the nature conservation zone, making a case for the approval for tree cutting.

Bharti Land was yet to get the tree felling-permission from the forest department when the state government issued the order of lifting curbs from cutting of mesquite trees across Haryana.

Speaking to Scroll.in, Gulati denied having knowledge of the Bharti Land case. “I have joined this office only a few weeks back. I don’t think this case has been taken up during my time. I do not remember it,” he said. Gulati said he took office on April 17. When informed that the directions to give permission to Bharti Land were issued from his office after this date, he said, “The decision must had been taken in the past. My office keeps moving old files without my knowledge.”

He added: “You don’t worry. We will take good care of forests and wildlife in the state.”

Scroll.in had sent detailed queries to Bharti Reality, the parent company of Bharti Land, on the implication of the cutting of trees on its plot in the Aravallis and the processing of its application with the forest department. “We have received all approvals regarding our project,” responded a company spokesperson. “The application for the felling of mesquite bushes has been applied for as per the requirement, and we are awaiting the approval for the same.”

Diluting protections

This case seems to reinforce the allegations of environmentalists that the Haryana government is diluting protections for the Aravallis. “By ignoring the natural conservation zoning regulations for the Aravalli hills and giving permission to one company the government is actually opening window for private players to clear and destroy 7,600 hectares of Aravalli land in Gurgaon and Faridabad whose status as forest is yet to be decided,” claimed Amina Sherwani, an environment activist who lives in Gurgaon,

She added: “By saying the area is not forest and directing mesquite tree felling permission be given, the state government is effectively handing out a fait accompli where owners could cut trees and claim that their land is not a deemed forest.”

Haryana has only 3.6% forest cover, far below the state’s target of 10% by 2010 and 20% by 2020. The National Capital Region Planning Board has directed Haryana to earmark wastelands in Aravallis for increasing forest cover but no action has been taken by the state so far.