It is unfortunate that the state should have thought that defanging the law was the appropriate response.
Given how caustic the Supreme Court was in its order to the Haryana government to not implement the amendments the latter recently made to the Punjab Land Preservation Act or PLPA, it is clear that the amendments were a mistake to begin with. They would have opened up thousands of acres of the Aravallis to activities like mining and construction, with serious implications for the environment in the region.
They would have also, retrospectively, legitimised illegal construction in the area—the Supreme Court, in September last year, had ordered the demolition of construction after 1992 in areas recognised as ‘forest’ under the PLPA in Haryana—including the infamous Kant Enclave project, and over 100 farmhouses and banquet halls built on forest land. Not only are the Aravallis important for biodiversity, they are also important for pollution control in the national capital region. But, going by how successive governments in Haryana have viewed the Aravalli question so far—while the state forest department has tried to get the Aravallis classified as forests, the town and planning department has resisted this—it is unlikely that the amendments will be junked without exhausting all legal options.
In 2009, the Supreme Court extended its 2004 ban on mining in notified areas of the Aravallis to an additional 448 sq km spread across Faridabad, Gurugram and Mewat districts of Haryana. But the ban did little to curb illegal mining and construction. In 2017, Bharti Land felled over 7,000 trees for a real estate project in the Aravallis in Faridabad, though the entire range has been classified as a Natural Conservation Zone while the Kant Enclave stands over 440 acres of forest land. Such destruction of the Aravallis has happened with impunity because Haryana has dragged its feet on notifying large swathes of the Aravallis under its jurisdiction as forest area. Though the notification of forest area has to happen under the Forest Conservation Act—which superseded the 1927 Forest Act—PLPA lands could not be classified as forests because they have been traditionally owned by panchayats. Environmentalists have argued in the the Supreme Court for decades that the PLPA land should be notified as “protected” or “reserve” forests since they are just as ecologically significant and sensitive.
In 1996, the Supreme Court ordered all state governments to identify forests in their jurisdiction; though, under the PLPA, 25,000 hectares in Haryana are identified as forests, the Haryana government’s response to the SC order managed to keep over 12,000 hectares out of notification as forests. Given the SC, in its September 2018 order, had maintained that the land notified by Haryana under PLPA “must be treated as forest and forest land”, the amendments would have stripped away the last vestige of protection for the vulnerable Aravallis in Haryana. In the September order, the SC delivered a stinging censure of the Haryana government, saying, “The rule of law seems to have broken down in Haryana”. It is unfortunate that the state should have thought that defanging the law was the appropriate response.