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What Haryana must learn from Punjab to protect Aravali land
The Times of India  |  February 26, 2019

Shilpy Arora Gurugram

Some 118 years ago, realising that survival of hilly areas is important to safeguard the ecology, and ensure agricultural prosperity in the plains, the British introduced the Punjab Land Preservation Act.

 

Till now, the governments of Punjab and Himachal Pradeshhad together been working for the protection of the Aravalisunder the PLPA. Recently, Punjab took the lead in re-notifying land under the PLPA, curbing construction in this area to protect the Shivaliks (often referred to as the foothills of the Himalayas). But in its plans to amend the act, the Haryana government has put the health of the country’s oldest mountain range in further peril.

 

The actions of Punjab’s forest department, along with its minister of forests, Sadhu Singh Dharamsot, helped in renewing the act. A study was carried out by the Central Soil Conservation Institute (a central government undertaking), Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Soil and Land Use Survey, Noida, and Punjab Remote Sensing Centre, Ludhiana, to understand the effects of de-notifying the PLPA.

 

The forest department, along with the agencies, photographed and video-graphed the entire area to understand the make-up of the land. "The objective was to study impact of the closure of PLPA in last 100 years," a senior official from Punjab’s forest department told TOI.

 

"It was found that land under PLPA is significant to avoid erosion and landslips in the lower regions. And as the agencies that carried out the study termed this land as ‘severe erosion’ area, it was decided to continue the protection."

 

So, complying with the High Court’s order, the Punjab government carried out a study in 15 villages of Kandi area, in Mohali district, and re-notified the PLPA in areas where the act expired in February 2018. By reissuing notification, the state ensured protection for 22,000 acres of land, despite that most of it came under private ownership (as is the case in Haryana).

 

As per the study (a copy of which is with TOI), areas ‘closed’ under the PLPA utilise water for irrigation purposes efficiently, and help recharge groundwater and enhance sub-surface flow. "Regulating restrictions through PLPA had ensured better vegetative cover and hence reduced soil erosion," states the study, adding that clearing/breaking of land, quarrying and removal of trees on steep slopes, should be checked to prevent soil erosion.

 

Accounts prepared by former conservators of forests also highlighted the importance of the PLPA. "The lower (Shivalik) hills (between Peshawar to Kaleshar Doon) are most important forest areas in the province due to their influence on the agricultural wealth of the underlying country," wrote one who reviewed the forest report of 1881-82. Another mentioned (in 1928) that ‘closure’ of the area against grazing is the only possible way to increase forest cover, for there was little chance of conserving forests in a dry climate like Punjab’s.

 

Nevertheless, the Haryana government, ruling out all scientific studies and without seeking permission from the Supreme Court, is rushing towards amending the 118-year-old act. Unlike Punjab, the state government didn’t seek any recommendations or surveys even from the forest department.

 

"The Haryana chief minister should call Capt. Amarinder Singh to learn how he defied the builder mafia and re-notified 22,000 acres of hilly land under the PLPA around Chandigarh, and instead of amending the act, Haryana should re-notify the lapsed areas under the PLPA," maintained Col. Oberoi, a legal expert and environmentalist.

 

Offering a solution, former conservator of forests R P Balwan told TOI, "As a scientific study was carried out in the Shivaliks to analyse the impact of de-notifying PLPA, there is a need to carry out a scientific study in Haryana on what has changed in the last 118 years.

 

"The fact is, the situation in the Aravalis has worsened over the last few years. If the PLPA is lifted, the entire region will become a desert very soon," warned Balwan.

 

As per the 2017 assessment of the Forest Survey of India, Punjab, which had the lowest forest cover in India, was able to increase it to 3.65% from 3.52% Haryana, on the other hand, was recorded as having the smallest forest cover (3.59% of its geographical area). In 2016-2017, then, Punjab increased its forest cover by 0.13%, Haryana by only 0.02%. Now, the proposed amendment to the PLPA will adversely impact a quarter of the state’s forest cover.