Aravalli: As NGT Pulls Up Govts for Illegal Mining, What Is Preventing Conservation?

Kochi: The Aravallis – one of the world’s oldest hill ranges – lie just 40 kilometres southwest of Delhi. However, these old hills are gradually disappearing, thanks to illegal mining.

Despite a 2002 Supreme Court order banning mining activities in the entire Aravalli region, reports of several alleged instances have emerged over the past year. For instance, in the Pandala hills of the Aravallis in Haryana’s Gurugram district, hikers and nature enthusiasts have reportedly seen 30 to 40 feet of a hillock cleared over a span of eight months in 2021-22.

A report by a Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) in 2018 found that 25% of the Aravalli range has been lost due to illegal mining in Rajasthan since 1968.

Between March 2021 and March 2022, members of the Aravalli Bachao, a citizen movement to save the range, noted evidence of the ongoing stone mining in 16 locations across the districts of Faridabad, Nuh and Gurugram in Haryana. In Gurugram’s Pandala hills area, the members said they came across two mining spots.

“In just a span of seven to eight months, an entire hill was destroyed, eaten up and pushed many meters behind,” said Neelam Ahluwalia, founder-member of the Aravalli Bachao Movement, and Jyoti Raghavan, another member of the movement.

With video and photographic evidence, the team filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), raising concerns about how local authorities including the police had not responded to complaints regarding illegal mining over the past year.

In response, the NGT on May 23 pulled up the Haryana and Union governments over their failure to monitor and prevent illegal mining in the Aravalli hill range. The apex green court directed several government departments to file their responses over the next two months. These include the Union environment ministry, the Haryana forest department, the mines and geology department and the State Pollution Control Board (PCB).

The NGT has also constituted a joint committee consisting of representatives from departments, including the Union environment ministry and state police department, to file factual verification reports on the matter within three months. This report will include the number of complaints received regarding illegal mining over the last five years, the action taken, the quantum of such mining and the magnitude of the loss caused to the environment as well as the state exchequer, and the steps taken for the environmental restoration in these areas.

The State PCB will be the nodal agency for coordination and compliance.

‘A lack of political will’

The Aravalli hill range, consisting of native dry deciduous forests and scrub jungles, stretches across the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Gujarat and Delhi. By some estimates, the hills check the spread of the Thar desert towards eastern Rajasthan, the Indo-Gangetic plains, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh.

The hills have also served as a source of construction material for the region for decades.

Illegal mining near Kota Khandewla village, Gurugram, Haryana. (Photo by: Aravalli Bachao citizens movement)

The Aravalli Bachao citizens movement has asked the government to constitute an independent ‘Aravalli Protection Authority’ – a body independent of state governments aimed at protecting the hill range from further habitat degradation across all the four states. According to Ahluwalia, a “lack of political and administrative will” to implement the mining ban in the area is the reason why it is continuing unabated despite a 2002 ban by the apex court.

Administrative apathy to mining in the Aravallis is not new. And it endangers not only the local ecology and the environment, but also the people.

In January 2022, at least five people were killed in a landslide at the Dadam mining zone of Haryana’s Bhiwani district. In October 2021, locals had complained to the local police station about how mining in the area had spilled over into the protected areas in the Aravallis, Mongabay-India had reported in February. However, the concerned departments – including the State Pollution Control Board – did not take any action.

Meanwhile, a new draft of a regional plan that regulates development in the National Capital Region (NCR) could open up the Aravalli hill range to more construction activities, The Wire Science had reported in January.

However, it is not that the forest department is not taking action, said a source in the Haryana forest department, who did not wish to be named. “We have been taking cognisance of this in several ways, including filing first information reports on local violations whenever they come up.”

According to the source, respective divisional forest officers in the area have been tasked with reporting on each of the violations in the 16 locations. They have been asked to check if the locations fall under the purview of certain forest departments. If they do, the status report submitted to the NGT must contain details of the action taken, if any, by the forest department.

The case will be next heard on August 24.