Want to Breathe in Delhi? Protect Your Aravallis

Delhi is experimenting with the Odd/Even car rule this fortnight. And the AAP Government is already claiming success in bringing down the capital’s air pollution levels. The demon that Delhi is trying to slay is the extremely hazardous PM 2.5. It refers to Particulate Matter that is just 2.5 microns wide, in fact even more minute than the width of human hair. Levels of PM2.5 are reported to have significantly declined for certain hours in the last few days in Delhi. The jury is however still out on how effective the Odd/Even rule will be as a long-term solution to improving Delhi’s air quality.

But to many environmentalists, the Odd/Even rule is a knee-jerk reaction. And also a short-sighted one. They say it’s pretty odd, that even with a 6800 acre dense Aravalli forest in the South of the capital, Delhi fails to understand how tightly linked the Aravallis are to the health of Delhi NCR’s air and water.

Why are Delhi’s Aravallis under threat?

That 6800 acre forest is the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, the last halt of the Aravallis in Delhi which enjoys protected status. But in recent days, a sinister and silent campaign has been playing out in Haryana to blunt the Aravallis in their state. Haryana wants to de-link the natural contiguity of the Aravallis of Delhi with the ranges that fall in Gurgaon and Faridabad districts of Haryana. It is shocking that Haryana would plan such a move to further cut its green areas when its existing forest cover is at a dismal 3.5% as against the mandatory 10% for every state in India.

Neha Sinha, Policy Officer with the Bombay Natural History Society reports that discussions are currently on in Haryana to decide the extent of the eco-sensitive area which will serve as a buffer zone around Haryana’s Aravallis. She reveals “haryana has suggested that they will only have a 1 km eco-sensitive area which is very small because it cuts off many important places from Asola sanctuary like Faridabad’s Mangar forest, Badkhal lake and Gurgaon’s Damdama lake, which are all areas within the landscape of the Aravallis. It is a geological area, important for animals and an important area for cleaning our air. If we have such a small buffer zone, we run the risk of the sanctuary not being able to perform its ecosystem services.”

Aravallis, Our Natural Air Purifier

The Aravallis are an important water sink that recharges the groundwater of Delhi NCR. The Aravallis are also an indispensable barrier that protects Delhi NCR from desertification. So if the last sanctuary of Delhi loses its connectivity with Haryana’s Aravallis and gets a hard edge right outside its gates, it will be exposed to all kinds of extractive and polluting activities like real estate, mining and garbage dumping.

Neha asserts, “Asola won’t serve the purpose of a sanctuary anymore. It’s important to conserve the Aravalli landscape in its perpetuity. We are looking at what China is doing in terms of the Odd/Even formula. And maybe someday we will be looking at selling bottled air also in the way China does. But what would be the cheapest and most effective way to have clean air? That would be having more trees. It’s actually having trees not just on the side of the road but a living ecosystem which performs much greater eco-system services than just trees outside our houses. A big contiguous forest is a powerful air purification unit. We are setting up air purifier units in our homes today, but that is a very myopic response. The only way out is to preserve our forest and increase it.”

Leopards in Delhi’s Aravalli Backyard

What town-planners and the land mafia would like us to believe is that the Aravallis of NCR are of no consequence and are best suited for farmhouses. Geographically a semi-arid habitat with short prickly trees, it appears to most as hardly a forest. But wildlife conservationists reveal the Aravallis of Delhi and Haryana are home to the elusive Leopard, Jackals, Deer, the Blue Bull and many migratory birds. According to Koustubh Sharma, Wildlife Scientist and Ecologist, “we are talking about an area which is between these three big sub-cities of Delhi NCR and right between these we have a healthy population of Leopards. Because if you take into consideration the amount of road-kills that have happened in the last one year along with photographic evidence, it is clear that leopards are freely moving between the Aravallis of Delhi and Haryana.”

In fact the Aravallis of Asola sprung up a New Year’s surprise with a new species of Spider being discovered. Zoologist at JNU, Dr Surya Prakash warns that “If we lose the Aravallis because of policymakers, we will lose the only living example of the ridge ecosystem in India. And citizens are going to lose so much in that future that you cannot fathom.”

Aravallis: Cheapest Investment in Your Future

Delhi has lost the Yamuna river forever. The Delhi ridge has lost its endemic trees. Gurgaon and Faridabad’s Paleolithic water channels and lakes have dried up. Our blind eye to the policy manipulations over the Aravallis will one day leave Delhi-NCR completely shaved off of what is the world’s oldest mountain system, one which even finds mention as Khandavprastha in the Mahabharata. Environment Activist Amina Shervani has an uncomfortable message for citizens of Delhi NCR. Ignorance of the endangered status of the Aravallis has disastrous consequences for all of NCR.

“We saw Chennai which flooded not because of the rains. It flooded because the marsh areas and water recharge zones have been constructed upon in Chennai. And that is exactly what we are doing to the Aravallis. If we dont have land, forests, marshes around us, we are going to die. Our city will not survive. How many billions did we lose in Chennai with one stroke of nature? Remember Nature is way more powerful than you or me. She will find a way and she will destroy us if we mess with her any further. It is time to take stock, it is time to wake up, and it is time to get into action because every citizen has to fight for this now.”

Koustubh Sharma, Wildlife Scientist & Ecologist says “that at a time when we are facing a health crisis in our cities with respect to clean air and water, the take home message for citizens is that “it is a good investment to invest in maintaining our natural ecosystems. It is a bad investment to get rid of them for any sort of destruction or infrastructure which is not properly planned. We need to make sure that the planning takes into consideration the catchment areas, takes into consideration the flooding runoffs and the ecosystem services.”

The Aravallis are ours. They are part of Delhi’s identity. They shape its unique character as much as the Qutub Minar or the old Mughal ruins. The Aravallis forests are the last remnants the endemic forest type of Delhi. And protecting them at all costs is a matter of immediate attention not just for environment activists but also for citizens of Delhi. If you don’t rally together to stop this mindless urbanization of our Aravallis, then you do not have the right to complain later when we start choking in our cities.

Vasudha Sharma, Anchor & Correspondent, NDTV

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