If you were asked to describe Gurgaon’s landscape what would you say? Perhaps you would talk about how ‘brown’ the city appears – dusty, almost barren. Perhaps you would talk about the skyscrapers and the malls that make this one of India’s richest cities. You would also perhaps talk about the wide roads, the gated-communities, the under-passes, the metro, the wine-shops and the golf course. What is likely to be left out from that list are Gurgaon’s wild areas – no not those wild areas – represented by shady dance clubs, massage parlours and the lawless parts of the city. We are referring to those wild areas where nature still has a strong-hold, although tenuous.
Minutes away from the centre of the city are remnants of Gurgaon’s glorious ecological heritage. Landscapes where bird-calls, the rustling of leaves and the howl of the jackals are still the only sounds you will hear. These are areas where time seems to have stood still. Areas where the leopard still stalks its prey, where porcupines and neelgais still traverse the rocky, thorny forest trails and where you still come across cowherds and agrarian communities who have not yet found their way to our industrialised way of life.
Gurgaon, Faridabad, Delhi are located in a topographical bowl and are surrounded on all sides by the Aravalli hill system. Take a look at the satellite images of Gurgaon and Faridabad on Google maps. On the peripheries of these urban jungles, you will observe swaths of green, which are the ridges and rainwater channels of these last remaining hills…part of the oldest mountain system on the planet. Zoom out and it will start to become clear how these hills have been forming a physical barrier between the plains of northern India and the Thar desert. Remove the Aravallis and India’s National Capital Region will suddenly find the desert at its doorstep.
What the map doesn’t show is the damage that has been meted out to this ancient ecosystem by mining activity. The Aravallis were ravaged by mining for many years till the Supreme Court came to its rescue in 2002 and banned all mining activity in the Haryana Aravallis. Yet, on any given day, it is easy to spot trucks carrying rocks and stones, making their way to crusher sites. Clearly, there is a slip between the cup and the lip. Stories abound about the blatant illegal mining that still goes on in these hills.
So when the Haryana government decided to approach the Supreme Court to lift the ban on mining, a group of concerned Gurgaon residents, part of the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Group, decided to see first-hand, how serious this threat is to the last remaining Aravalli hills. We visited 4 different locations in Gurgaon and Faridabad Aravallis in the end of March and early April 2021: Pandala hills, Damdama hills, area behind Aravalli pathways school and Lake Bharadwaj. All these spots in NCR Aravallis are within 45 mins driving distance from HUDA City Centre metro station in Gurgaon.
ILLEGAL MINING IN PANDALA HILLS
Pandala hills are an oasis of hillside and forest near the new sectors of Gurgaon. As you approach Pandala, it becomes immediately apparent that these hills are bustling with wildlife. Peacocks out for their morning flights, a fleeting hare, bee-eaters, thrushes, doves, koels are all up and about trying to catch that early worm.
We parked our cars and decided to take a trail that veers off the road, climbing steadily till we were on top of the hill. Around us we found a mix of vegetation – the endemic Dhau and the bright-red Palash – signalling that summer is here. It was hard to imagine that just 10 minutes away is the dust-bowl that is Gurgaon.
We came across a make-shift road, cutting across the forest. On it, alongside the footprints of peacocks, we saw tractor tyre tracks. We followed the road and it became apparent that we were on an actively used trail. 15 minutes later and further inside the forest, we found ourselves staring at a large ditch in the ground. This was no natural formation. It was the site of a blasting activity. An entire hillside has been cut in half, its stones loaded onto a tractor bound for the crushing zones. Eventually, this sand will end up at the 1000s of construction sites that dot Gurgaon and Faridabad’s landscape. Here, far away from human eyes, we witnessed the illegal plunder of our natural resources.
We climbed further up the hillside and from this vantage point, we could observe 8 to 10 other sites with signs of on-going mining activity. Our guides, who are regular trekkers into these hills say that just a few months ago these hills were intact. While all of us were quarantined away during the lockdown in 2020, illegal mining picked up pace. The result is there in front of our eyes. As we clambered down the hill, we spot a lone neelgai, evidence that wildlife still finds refuge in this forest.
As we walked back to our cars, we talked about the sheer foolishness of lifting the mining ban and the inefficiency of the state in controlling the destruction we witnessed. We never saw any forest official, check-point or barricade – an indication that the government is not taking steps to protect the Aravallis. These hills have to fend for themselves and they are losing the battle.
ILLEGAL MINING IN BHARADWAJ LAKE
Bharadwaj lake in Faridabad Aravallis is a product of mining activity that breached the local water aquifer. This pristine water body is an open secret to trekkers and other outdoor enthusiasts. It’s emerald waters reflect the green of the surrounding hills. Those who have visited the water body can attest to its breath-taking beauty.
It is nearly 5 km from any road head and this isolation has kept its beauty intact. However, it has also attracted the mining mafia. Caravans of camels can be seen on the track leading up to the lake. These camels are used to carry away the sand alongside the lake. It was shocking and dismaying to witness the extent of theft that is taking place. The sandbanks around the lake are almost eroded and it is likely that we will soon see the area completely devoid of sand. It has happened to other areas of the NCR Aravallis – entire sand dunes have disappeared within the span of a decade.
While the forest officials seem to stay away, locals who benefit from this illicit trade are always on the lookout, questioning outsiders who decide to venture into these parts. Our group was on the receiving end of such intimidation.
ILLEGAL MINING NEAR ARAVALLI PATHWAY SCHOOL, NEAR TIKLI VILLAGE
It was shocking to see the devastation in this beautiful Aravalli area during our 10 km trek on 2nd April 2021. There were tractor tyres everywhere deep inside the jungle. Signs of illegal mining were evident seeing the big holes in the hills made by blasting using dynamite. The walkers who took us there said that every 2 months they visit this area, the landscape has changed and more hills have been levelled to the ground.
Instead of preserving the beauty of the Aravalli ecosystem and converting it into a destination for eco tourism, forest bathing, adventure sports and have the local villagers earn their livelihoods by being trekking guides etc, the government is allowing the destruction of NCR’s critical water recharge zone, shield against desertification, climate regulator and important wildlife habitat by turning a blind eye to this illegal mining activity.
On our way out of the forest, we saw 2 tractors going in. These tractors had no number plates on them !
ILLEGAL MINING IN DAMDAMA HILLS
In this 13 km trek deep inside the Aravallis in the Damdama range on 4th April 2021, we saw the beautiful Egyptian vulture. This is a rare and endangered bird that lives in the Aravallis. But what we saw here completely shocked us. At 10 am, trucks were moving around collecting sand and stone. Nothing to stop them as there are no police check posts or forest guards for miles. The regular walkers in this area showed our team entire hills eaten up and moved behind due to illegal mining activity over the last few years.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO SAVE THE ARAVALLIS?
The NCR Aravallis are a marvellous ecosystem. We encourage more residents of Gurgaon and Faridabad to venture into these forest trails (leaving behind only your footprints). This is the only way to understand what beauty exists and what is at risk. There is an urgent need to protect the Aravallis from human greed for they are NCR’s lungs, it’s water recharge zone, it’s protection from the expanding Thar desert, a critical wildlife habitat and an area to reconnect with nature and rejuvenate oneself. If the Aravallis go, we go.
Citizens have to come together to get the government to enact measures to protect and grow this ecosystem. Today, only 3.62% of Haryana is forested. Let’s ask the government to increase this to 20%. But before we do that, we need to ensure that the ban on mining is not lifted. Restarting of mining operations will be a death-blow to this ecosystem. The only thing that can prevent the Supreme Court from reversing its decision, is the voice of citizens. Make sure your protest to this move is heard!
Supreme Court hearing on Haryana government’s move to legalise mining again is scheduled on Monday, 19th April 2021. Both the Chief Justice of India and the Haryana government need to hear from lakhs of citizens from NCR and across India saying no to legalising mining in the Aravallis.
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