May 26, 2024

Aravallis: On the Brink of Total Destruction


A RECENT Supreme Court order prohibiting new leases for mining in the Aravalli hills spread over the four states of Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan And Gujarat, has raised new hope regarding the endangered Aravallis ecosystem which is on the verge of total destruction. The Aravallis have long been subjected to rapacious and often illegal mining, quarrying and construction activities in a seemingly inexorable process of extractive industrialisation and urbanisation. These have caused severe, perhaps irreversible damage to a large ecosystem covering several thousand square kilometers impacting protection from desertification, rainwater catchment and recharging of groundwater aquifers, natural drainage, important and unique ecological services, and a wide variety of flora and fauna.

The destruction of many segments of the Aravallis has been happening for over four decades despite earlier attempts at protection and regulation, chiefly through the intervention of the Supreme Court. However, vested interests in mining and real estate have been deeply entrenched and powerful, and have managed to thwart these efforts, actively supported by the political and administrative establishments who have colluded with the former to circumvent rules and court rulings by hook or by crook.

The enormous influence of these powerful interest groups may be gauged from the SC’s cautious ruling,  some may characterise as walking on egg-shells. The SC ruling clarifies that their order does not prohibit operation of existing mining leases. It also says that states may continue to receive applications for fresh leases, but no leases should be finalised and issued till SC clears the way. The SC also observed at it was not in favour of a total ban on mining in the Aravallis since past experience shows this may only encourage illegal mining which would be even more difficult to control.


Nevertheless, the recent SC order and related earlier actions under its supervision contain several important components which may pave the way for future institutional regulations and safeguards to protect the Aravalli ecosystem. A Central Empowered Committee (CEC) functioning under oversight of the SC has prepared and submitted a preliminary report detailing illegal mining activities, encroachment upon forest land and other areas under the Aravallis. A preliminary report of the Forest Survey of India outlining a rough delineation of the Aravallis and a buffer zone of 100km around it was also submitted to the SC.

The SC noted that one of the big problems due to which illegal mining has been rampant, and even regulation of legal mining or commercial activities has been so difficult, is that there is no accepted definition of the Aravallis or mapping of areas within it, which will require agreement between four states and concerned central and other agencies. Haryana has been the most problematic in this regard, and does not even use the term Aravalli to describe any area or regulate activities there, preferring instead to simply use the term forest areas, with all its attendant difficulties and fungibility.

SC has now set up a committee comprising the heads of the forest department of the four states, representative  the union ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) and other relevant agencies, to arrive at a unified definition of the Aravallis and submit its report in two months. The SC also set July 31, 2024 as the date for the next hearing.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has prepared a Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas which documents degradation of around 98 million hectares (mha) or almost 30 per cent of India’s geographical area (328 mha) during 2018-19. An earlier ISRO report had stated that 50 per cent of land had already been degraded in Delhi, Rajasthan and Gujarat. India has adopted a target to restore 26 mha, with the Aravallis identified as one of the key zones for “greening.”          

MoEFCC has launched an ambitious so-called Aravalli Green Wall Project as part of a National Action Plan to Combat Desertification and Land Degradation through Forestry Interventions. The plan is to create a 1,400 km long and 5 km wide green belt around the Aravallis and adjoining areas in Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan and Gujarat, along with rejuvenation of 75 water bodies (5 per district covered). This plan is said to have been inspired by the “Great Green Wall Project” in Africa running from Senegal in the West to Djibouti in the East.

But it is strange to see such grandiose plans set against the on-going wanton degradation of the Aravallis.

Several studies have documented the destruction of various aspects of the Aravalli ecosystem and the damage this has caused over an extensive area.

The Aravalli mountain range was probably never an unbroken chain over its entire length. However, after destructive mining and quarrying which have completely razed several hills to the ground, there are large visible gaps in the range. The SC appointed CEC has recorded that around 25 per cent of the total around 2,200 hillocks noted by the Survey of India in 1968 have now disappeared, as shown by satellite images and ground observations. Much of the natural drainage in the area has been destroyed by the damage to the hills and the mining, quarrying and construction activities in the Aravallis.

Loss of forest cover has also been substantial. In Rajasthan, out of around 10,500 area under some or other type of forest in 1972-75, only around 6,000 remained in 1981-84, and much more has been lost since.

These changes have seen desertification advance in several districts of Rajasthan and Haryana. Sand dunes and desert vegetation have been observed in many areas. Grazing areas have substantially reduced. Gaps in the Aravallis and loss of indigenous trees, shrubs and vegetation have also resulted in altered climate in the region. Several districts have noted below average rainfall for several years now.

 Groundwater has been another major casualty. In several districts covered by the Aravallis and subject to extensive mining, quarrying, stone crushing and construction activities,  especially in the areas adjoining Delhi and the industrial belt to the south, groundwater levels have dropped from 10m to over 150m below the ground. The lack of groundwater has also brought termites closer to the surface adversely affecting cultivation and productivity. This has driven a shift in cropping patterns from pulses to wheat and mustard which are more resistant to termites. However, this has further increased demand for ground water, exacerbating this vicious cycle.

These problems are lamented not only by nature lovers or environmentalists but also by farmers and residents of the new posh suburbs of Delhi and many other urban centres adjacent to the Aravallis. The so-called “millennium city” of Gurgaon is plagued by lack of water and flooding in the monsoons due to blockage of drainage channels. Many areas of South Delhi are witnessing incursions by leopards, nilgai and other wildlife driven out of their habitat. All this is driving a new awakening among the middle classes who had, ironically, benefited from the earlier destructive urbanisation over the Aravallis.

IS SC THE LAST HOPE?                

Given the long history of collusion by administrative and political authorities in the ecological destruction and violation of regulations, many believe that the Supreme Court is the last hope. It is no wonder, when government agencies themselves have openly violated regulations and built many official complexes such as a Police Training Institute in the Aravalli areas of Haryana.

A huge upmarket residential complex called Kant Enclave south of Delhi had to be torn down on Supreme Court orders because it had been illegally built on forest land without clearance from the forest department but given permission by the town and country planning department.  The SC judgement of 2018 made detailed observations and also recorded the history of regulatory efforts, patterns of violations and illegal activities in the region, apart from the role of government bodies and authorities. Many of these observations will no doubt form the basis for future regulations likely to be laid down by the SC in coming months regarding the Aravallis.

However, given the long arm of vested interests and their collusive partners in administration and the political establishment, it is incumbent on citizenry to be alert and prevent further destruction of the Aravallis, a vital ecosystem in west and north-west India.