Delhi ridge: a lifeline in danger

Encroachments - by the poor and the rich alike - are proving to be the ridge's bane. The malady is monumental, and the court's healing touch has provided incomplete relief at best

Published: Thursday 15 May 1997

Delhi ridge: a lifeline in danger

In Vasant Kunj (south-central< (Credit: Amit Shanker / cse)THE ridge in Delhi (the capital's 'lungs') has been mired in controversy for the past two decades for its rampant abuse. This rump of the Aravalli hills, a discontinued sparse forest of kikar, babul, shisham, neem and eucalyptus, has always absorbed pressure from a metro that is bursting at its seams. It has provided space for housing, mining and other temporal and spiritual demands - petrol pumps, schools and places of worship, The officialdom has chipped off its bit, carving out permanent camps for paramilitary forces, an army shooting range, a polo ground and the odd office building.

Encroachment of the ridge was put on the judicial agenda with a case filed by environmental lawyer M C Mehta in 1985. Mehta contended that since the ridge was notified as a reserved forest (RF) under the Indian Forest Act (IFA), 1927, all encroachments on it in violation of the IFA provisions would be 'illegal' - irrespective of the government's permission. Records show that 796 hectares (ha) of northern and central ridge were demarcated as RF in 1913, while in 1980, by a notification under the IFA, 20 sites in northern, central and south-central ridge were demarcated as protected forests. The plea was to apply all provisions relating to RF to the ridge.

The Bhatti mines
One of the specific regions Mehta drew the court's attention to were the Bhatti mines. Quarrying of red and started in the Bhatti hill area (southern ridge) in 1959. In the '60s, skilled labourers from Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab migrated to the area to work for private quarrying companies. As private operators repeatedly flouted safety norms, the Delhi State Industrial Development Corporation took over the mines in 1975. Planned settlement of the mine workers took place in three colonies (Sanjay Colony, Indira Colony and Balbir Nagar) and they were recognized as permanent residents of the area. In May 1990, seven labourers died when a quarry caved in. The quarries were shut down as a result. In 1991, the area that included the quarry and the settlements was declared part of the Asola wildlife sanctuary.

The judgment
The court
ordered that all encroachments in the notified ridge area be removed, including the three settlements housing around 30,000 people; the deadline for the removal was October 31, 1996 which was extended till March 31, 1997 and again, for another three months;

set up a supervisory committee for the settlement of claims of all those who have to be removed from the area.

The Vasant Kunj hotel complex
The Vasant Kunj case is part of the main ridge case. An affidavit was filed by S Subramaniam, member of Citizens for South-Western Lake Wilderness and other citizens' groups in September 1996. On June 17,1995, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) had issued a notification increasing the allocation for commercial development in a certain south Delhi area from eight ha to 65 ha. The main ingredient of this development plan was a proposed complex of 11 hotels and a wide road to be built over a green tract near Vasant Kunj - a geographic extension of the south-central ridge.

The judgment
The SC directed
that the government constitute an environment impact assessment (EIA) authority (for the national capital region) under the Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1986, headed by a retired High Court (HC) judge, which would look into - and issue directives on - such environmentally sensitive projects. The authority would include experts in environment protection and pollution control appointed by the Central government. Construction of the complex was stayed till the committee cleared the project.

To this effect, an urban EIA body has been set up by the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) under the chairpersonship of R K Shukla, retired judge of Allahabad HC. The committee is yet to give its final report.

... and its impact
ON ENVIRONMENT: In Bhatti, it is still unclear how the villagers' eviction will benefit the sanctuary. According to Iqbal Malik, NGO activist and member of the committee for management of Asola and Bhatti, the sanctuary cannot survive without the villagers, who have proven to be a check on illegal quarrying in the region.

In the Vasant Kunj case, legally, action on the project cannot be taken until the urban EIA body gives the go-ahead. Citizens and environmental NGOs feel that they have been left out of the decision-making process. Aggrieved NGOs had moved court for the inclusion of independent experts in the panel, but the court reportedly refused to tackle such details. Meanwhile, a group of NGOs including Srishti, Kalapavriksh and Citizens for the Preservation of Quarries' Wilderness has come up with an alternate EIA for the area.

Even when the stay order was on, construction of a particular hotel had been reportedly going on at the controversial area. Also, the DDA went ahead with its scheduled plan of inviting architects to submit designs to develop the area.

ON THE POOR: In Bhatti, eviction Orders to the hapless resettled workers were issued by the Delhi forest department as the sc case on ridge conservation progressed. The orders incorporate the prospect of relocation to another village, Joanapur. Says Anita Soni, a social worker functioning in the region: "The axe fell on the innocent poor settlers, leaving out massive ecologically harmful encroachments by the rich." She points out that in the southern ridge, sprawling farmhouses and luxury week-end resorts of the rich and the famous have proliferated over the last 20 years.

The Delhi unit of the National Alliance of Peoples' Movements (NAPM), a loose network of various peoples' movements, is trying to move the court regarding the rights of the settlers. NAPM activists claim that the proposed shifting of the workers' settlements is economically unviable. According to an affidavit submitted by the Delhi government before the SC, the shifting would cost more than Rs 20 crore. Activists say that the workers may not be the beneficiaries, going by the government track record in evicting and resettling people. Also, it might not be the most ecofriendly act either. Points out Vimal, an NAPM convenor: "Situated five kin away from the present settlements, Joanapur also is a ridge area."

ON GOVERNMENT AGENCIES: NGOs feel that while the issue should be dealt with in totality the cases are being handled in a piecemeal manner. Too many agencies are taking care of the ridge, with little coordination.

In the case of Vasant Kunj, the DDA's plans for development do not seem to have taken into account the water scarcity in the area. The alternative EIA prepared by NGOS shows that there will be major water crises in the area once the project comes up. The hotel complex and the upcoming golf course would require six to seven million litres of water daily-, the Delhi administration has not, till now, been able to reduce even the existing demand-supply gap.

What the law missed
The court orders in the ridge cases have handled only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. "The legal action often failed to see things in totality," points out Ravi Agarwal of Srishti, a Delhi-based NGO involved in drafting an alternate ridge management plan. Tubular vision affected the court judgments. Often, the orders hit the wrong target; a case in point is that of Bhatti's poor migrants, who will have to make way for the sanctuary, while vu, farmhouses go untouched.

"What we badly needed was a more eco-friendly land use pattern for Delhi," Agarwal points out. But the court orders could not meet this need. instead, conservation at the judiciary's behest helped to vest more powers with the kaleidoscopic set of official agencies which now have jurisdiction over the ridge.

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