The Delhi administration's move to make the Asola and Bhatti sanctuaries exclusively protected areas ring alarm bells in the local villages
ENVIRONMENTAL activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been shouting themselves hoarse for a more stringent conservation of the Delhi Ridge. Ironically, the Delhi Administration's favourable response to the issue has sparked off widespread resentment among villages in a section of the so-called lung of Delhi.
Since the '90s, the inhabitants of nearly a dozen villages on the southern edge of the Ridge have resented attempts by the forest department to implement conservation measures in and around their settlements. The recent initiative of the Delhi Administration to provide more muscle to these measures by proposing to declare the entire Ridge a reserved forest under the Indian Forest Act is viewed by the villagers as a prelude to completely sealing off their entry and use of the natural resources of the land. Says Jagannath, a resident of Sahurpur, one of the villages in the affected area, "The authorities do not seem to be concerned about the traditional use of the land by many villages."
In contrast, officials of the forest department feel that the proposal will pave the way for much better management of the Asola and Bhatti wildlife sanctuaries located on the southern Ridge. They claim that non-cooperation and violation of rules by local villagers have been the major barriers to their plans to regenerate the vast tracts of degraded land on this part of the Ridge. The final notification on the status of the Ridge as a reserved forest is expected to be formally issued by the lieutenant governor of Delhi by next January.
Fencing out human activity in the area began with formation of the 1,906.33 ha Asola Wildlife Sanctuary and the 877.5 ha Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986 and 1991 respectively, under Section 18 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Negi asserts that the sanctuaries were created "primarily to prevent illegal encroachment on the area by slums and farmhouses". Carved out from the community land of the villages of Asola, Sahurpur and Maidangarhi and the Badarpur mines, the sanctuaries are surrounded by an estimated 100,000 people and 5,000 cattle.
Mine workers living in Asola Wildlife Sanctuary were relocated outside the area. The villages of Fatehpur Beri-Asola, Bhatti and Bhatti Kalan surround the sanctuaries. West of the protected area are the villages of Satbari, Sahurpur and Maidangarhi, the Deoli village in the northwest, Tughlakabad village in the northeast and Anangpur and Surajkund villages in the south of the Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary in Haryana. A large unauthorised colony, Sangam Vihar, abuts on the northwestern boundary of the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary. In addition, 3 villages -- Sanjay Colony, Indira Nagar and Balbir Nagar -- continue to exist within the Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. Farmhouses of the elite also occupy prime space around the sanctuaries in Mehrauli.
For ecological restoration of the heavily degraded land, the WII plan proposes that "the first and foremost priority is to give this area complete protection ... by evolving locally acceptable ways to reduce and then to eliminate the existing dependence of the people, whether it is for a road, forest biomass or water". The plan recommends zoning the area into a totally protected region from which all biotic pressure has been removed; resettling the villages inside the Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary into resettlement colonies; a visitors' zone on the periphery for educational purposes, and a recreation zone with suitable facilities. "None of these activities, which are meant for the elite, will benefit us," says Satya Prakash, pradhan (chief) of the settlements inside the Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.
Nevertheless, activists like Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriskh assert, "The area remains degraded because it has not been given full protection from encroachers." As a member of the Ridge Management Advisory Committee set up by the Lovraj Kumar Committee that recently submitted a report on the management and protection of the Ridge, Kothari is in favour of strengthening the exclusion zone. Iqbal Malik of the Delhi-based NGO, Srishti, also favours greater protection. "Illegal activities in the sanctuaries continue. The area is used as a thoroughfare by workers, trucks and mules. The surrounding villages use the area for sanitation purposes and cattle-grazing is almost unrestricted," she says.
The local people, however, feel that restoring the land by fencing it off will make their life unbearable. The formation of the sanctuaries, they point out, has suddenly deprived them of the land which served their needs for fodder and fuel. Speaking on the restrictions that have become a part of their lives since the sanctuaries were formed, Mangala of Sanjay colony says, "Now we cannot cut trees grown by us in our own backyard." Says Satya Prakash, "We live in the terror of relocation outside the sanctuary. Relocation will break up our villages, some of which were formed over 45 years ago, when we fled from Pakistan."
Even as the isolation zones are created in Asola and Bhatti sanctuaries, urbanisation speeds up in the villages. The WII report justifies it stand to wean the villagers from the land by stating that "the socioeconomic profile of the villagers living in the vicinity of the sanctuaries is not land-based to the extent seen in rural areas. Most ... live a semi-urban life and are not solely dependent upon forest biomass". Raminder Singh, a Bharatiya Janta Party activist from Mehrauli, says this has occurred because the people have been gradually deprived of their land by various authorities.
The marginalisation of the people from the land appears to have taken place because of mining and development activities, combined with well-meaning but misdirected attempts at conservation. Mining for quartzite rocks began in 1969 in the Bhatti area. Mining activities needed labour and the local population soared. People settled down in colonies like Balbir Nagar, in unauthorised settlements like Sangam Vihar and in the surrounding villages.
Says Jagannath, resident of Sahurpur village, "Earlier, each family owned 10 to 15 heads of cattle, which was our livelihood. But now, most of the people in our village work in the mines." Development has also brought about changes in Tughlakabad village, a 13th century settlement near Tughlakabad fort. A long-time resident of the village, Rani Bai, says, "In the past few decades, the village has lost its rural character."
Farming activities stopped in Tughlakabad village when the arable land beside Tughlak's tomb was taken over by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in the mid-'80s. The DDA fenced the land with barbed wire and "where once there were green fields, there is barren land now," says Rani Bai. Social disparities increased as villagers who were financially compensated for the land taken over by the DDA built bigger houses and changed their lifestyles. Sudden wealth combined with an influx of outsiders has changed the social fibre of an once closely-knit community, introducing evils like drinking and gambling. "The government coughed up money without teaching us how to invest it wisely," says a resident, "Land would have lasted us for generations, while the money has been squandered away in a few years."
Hemmed in by the restricted area of Tughlakabad Shooting Range, land staked by government authorities like the Archaeological Survey of India and conservationists in the form of the sanctuaries, the villagers complain of being forced to venture out more to graze their cattle. "They will now force us to leave the village and go into the city," fears Rani Bai, while Satya Prakash is convinced that the reserved areas will be taken over by farmhouse owners.
"The areas has had elitist development on the one hand and degradation of lifestyles in villages on the other," notes Brahma Singh Kanwar, Bharatiya Janta Party MLA from the Mehrauli constituency. Farmhouses and elite colonies like Charmwood Village and Kant Enclave have come up on the fringes of the southern Ridge, using the proximity to the sanctuaries as a promotional gimmick. At the same time, villages like Tughlakabad complain of acute water shortage, a chronic problem now facing all villages around the Ridge, an area which traditionally had the best drinking water from springs. Malik points out that "water supply from Tughlakabad village is drawn away by deep tubewells dug up to service elitist developments such as the Shooting Range and farmhouses".
At the same time, as the government cannot afford to alienate the vote bank represented by these villages, some facilities have been provided as a sop. In Sanjay Colony, the government built brick houses and a school, and water is supplied by tankers that visit the area everyday. However, Kanwar says, "For both elite settlements and these villages, the administrative problem is how to control encroachment."
Even as deprivation from the land has worsened the fibre of living for most villagers, it has not yet contributed to the overall development of the land. Despite hefty fund allocations, the protected areas have remained degraded. The sanctuaries have an annual budget of Rs 66 lakh. In addition, Rs 2.93 crore was sanctioned in 1987 and another Rs 285 lakh allocated for the sanctuaries in the 8th Five Year Plan for civil works alone. The northern part of Asola is still barren nearly 8 years after the sanctuary was formed, although the southern part has patches of woodland, comprising mainly kikar (Propopis juliflora). Of the 21 lakh trees planted by the forest department in the past 2 years, only an estimated 5 per cent survive.
The Bhatti sanctuary remains completely barren. It is alleged that officials of the state government are trying to restart mining in the sanctuary, in direct contravention of the forest department's rules. This is abetted by the Delhi State Mineral Development Corp, which has submitted an ecological restoration programme through pit rectification, revealed by the WII report to be a thinly veiled scheme for recovering ore.
Even in the face of this evidence, the officials believe that their intervention is the only redeeming feature in the area. However, Negi admits that several lacunae exist. The Delhi Administration's Flood and Irrigation Department, for instance, took 5 years to settle demarcation disputes in the Asola sanctuary and to construct a 48 km-long wall around the sanctuary, with 2 and a half km yet to go. The wall was breached at 128 points in the 7th year alone, "mostly due to encroachment by villagers," says Negi.
In the Bhatti sanctuary, boundary disputes with neighbouring Haryana have ensured that the demarcation is incomplete. Villagers add that mining in the Haryana side spills over inside the sanctuary as there is no proper demarcation. Negi points out that in the absence of a chief wildlife warden, who is empowered to frame wildlife protection rules under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, the sanctuary staff are unable to take punitive action to stop the illegal movement of trucks and people. Although he declares, "They should take a route which skirts the sanctuaries," no alternative road has been chalked out.
However, Negi is confident that the problems can be redressed. In addition to the WII management plan, the Delhi Administration has succeeded in sanctioning a 5-year research project of Rs 28 lakh through the Union ministry of environment and forests' Wasteland Development Board to Delhi University's Botany department for "development of a technology for eco-rehabilitation of the Bhatti mines area".
NGO representatives like Malik also recommend redefining the sanctuaries to exclude the villages inside it and the formation of a buffer zone to rehabilitate the people who live off the land. But the local villagers are sceptical. The impact of British intervention in the Delhi Ridge in the form of extensive plantations of the kikar tree still festers in living memory. The hardy exotic species has taken over the Ridge, suppressing other vegetation more suited to fulfill local needs. Intervention this time may prove to be much more perverse.
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