According to the local legend, Mangar Bani, a green patch between Faridabad and Gurgaon, was home to a Baba (a holy man), Gudariya Das Maharaj around 500 years ago. Popular among the local Gujjar herdsmen, the dominant community of the area, the Baba asked them to treat this forest as a sacred grove, the forested abode of a local deity. They were asked to protect the Bani forest fiercely by not even removing a single leaf from it or grazing their animals inside it.
This natural tropical forest, located in the Aravallis, is a revered one and is being protected from all harm by the locals. One of the reasons the forest survived through the centuries was because any form of extraction from the forests is a taboo here considering the complex social matrix of beliefs around the Baba. The restrictions on resource usage and the undisturbed condition helped protect the watershed, the aquifers and the water sources.
The rare animal and plant species native to the Aravallis have been shielded for long here. Dhau (Anogeissus pendula), which is native to the Delhi ridge, grows profusely in the area and has created a forest here. The area serves as the catchment of several lakes like Damdama, Surajkund and Badhkal. This also serves as the wildlife corridor between the Asola sanctuary in Delhi and the Sariska national park in Rajasthan.
Mangar Bani faces threat
Like every other open space in the NCR region, Mangar Bani too is under the threat of being “developed” into a concrete jungle.
The National Capital Region Planning Board-2021 (NCRPB) had in 2014 recommended that apart from the core area of Mangar Bani, a 500-metre buffer radius around the forest will be earmarked as a “no-construction zone”, as proposed by Haryana. Construction activities were limited in the natural conservation zones of Aravallis, its riverbeds and major water bodies. Haryana kept dilly-dallying the demarcation survey and demarcated the Mangar Bani forest area based on scientific principles only a year back, in February 2017. About 677 acres and the 500-metre buffer area have been protected barring the abadi (habitation) areas of the village that have been excluded.
But the implementation on the ground is dismal. In response to an RTI query filed by activist Asseem Takyar, the state's principal chief conservator of forests stated on July 6, 2017 that the government is not working on any proposal to declare any area of the village Mangar as forest.
The sacred grove was safe from encroachment until the Gurgaon-Faridabad stretch was a deserted single-lane pot-holed road. A report in the Economic and Political Weekly suggests that the “land in the area around Mangar Bani remained low-value until about six years ago when the road connecting Gurgaon and Faridabad was upgraded in anticipation of the eventual merging of the boundaries of these two expanding cities”.
A four-lane expressway built and managed by the Reliance group that has come up in the area connecting Gurgaon-Faridabad has led to a rise in realty development. Residential and commercial projects have already been launched and considering the future developments in the area, the authorities have earmarked land for a special economic zone on nearly 200 acres. Land records have been manipulated to represent many chunks of forest lands as revenue lands. The temple of Gudariya Baba and a few acres around it have been spared while the rest of Mangar Bani faces a serious threat. Agricultural lands are being replaced by forest view villas and apartments. Large mammals such as blue bulls and leopards are becoming fewer in number.
What happens to the area’s aquifers?
As per a petition to the Haryana government by citizens, Mangar Bani forest plays a crucial role in providing water amounting to an ecosystem service of approx US $2 billion. It provides sweet water and keeps saline water at bay, as per a presentation by Chetan Agarwal, an environment analyst at Azim Premji University (in 2017) on the topic of how land tenure, forest zoning regulations, and privatisation have all been stacked against the Mangar Bani. The area is characterised by low rainfall (600 mm annually), high groundwater infiltration rates (33 percent as compared to standard rates of 15 percent) and high secondary porosity. It serves as an important recharge zone for the surrounding alluvial areas as per Agarwal’s presentation. “If the forests in the area are restored, then three million litres of water is recharged in a year. At 10 paise per litre, the value is Rs 2 lakhs per hectare per year,” Agarwal points out.
There is a groundwater mound in the area which flows towards the plain areas where the extraction takes place. The water table in the area is sinking. For some years after 2002, groundwater tables have risen following a Supreme Court judgment that banned mining in the area. But this did not last long. Gurgaon's groundwater fell 16 metres in 10 years to 34.84 metres below ground level in 2015 from 18.77 metres in 2005. Faridabad too has been placed in the ‘dark zone’ or overexploited category, under which no boring can take place without the approval of the authorities. As per a report by the Central Ground Water Board, the area’s “aquifers are under great stress due to increased demand in irrigation and industrial sector”.
Increasing real estate price
Saving Mangar Bani is critical as a result. The area, though recognised by ecologists and nature enthusiasts for its trees, plants, birds and animals, is finding it hard to keep builders and land grabbers at bay. “Unauthorised tree felling continues inside in disregard of National Green Tribunal orders and the forest department keeps filing police complaints that fail to deter violators,” says Mahendra Yadav, a resident of the area.
As per a directive of the NGT of 2013, fencing is not allowed in Mangar Bani’s gair mumkin pahar which are deemed forest or lands on which agricultural, historical or animal husbandry activities were not possible as per revenue records. These common lands were managed by the village panchayats. Historically, the common lands have been converted into revenue lands by misusing the Punjab Village Common Lands Act of 1961. At present, as per a Supreme Court order, no construction activity is allowed in forest areas, but this does not apply here as these are lands categorised as common lands and got privatised.
The demand from the activists was to “notify Mangar Bani as a sanctuary or national park to accord permanent protection for future generations,” as per Chetan Agarwal in an article in The Hindu. Attempts were made by the Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as the Delhi government to get the forests demarcated. The National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB-2021) acknowledged the need to conserve and set aside the sacred grove as a “no-construction zone”. Also, areas that are deemed to be natural conservation zones are out of bounds for tourism activities except for 0.5 percent area where construction can take place with permission. As luck would have it, the masterplan for Gurgaon for 2025 and later for 2031 did not mention the need to preserve the natural conservation zones.
With such threats to the forests and its waters from urbanisation, the future of Mangar Bani remains uncertain.