Can we save the last natural forest in the vicinity of Delhi?
The road that leads to Faridabad from Gurgaon used to be a sleepy little one before it was expanded into a four lane expressway. The local villagers for some reason call it the ‘Relaynce’ (Reliance) Road, I am not writing this piece to speculate on their reasons, but because I want to take you off this road.
Get to Andheria Mod and ask for directions to the Gurgaon-Faridabad Road. Once on this road be on the lookout for the Gwal Pahari Campus of TERI (Tata Energy Research Institute). It would appear to your left, keep driving. A little while later if another structure looms into view, this time to your right and if simultaneously your senses are assailed by the stench of garbage you should feel assured that you have successfully stuck to the right path. Whoever said that the search for the divine is fraught with great challenges was not joking.
Why the search for the divine, because that is where I am leading you.
The stench, incidentally, emanates from a huge rubbish and recycling dump that is surrounded by a high boundary wall. Not high enough to keep the stench in, but high enough to prevent the casual passerby from discovering the source of this revolting aroma. The existence of a large chimney in the far distance is evidence that some efforts are on to keep things from overtaking the entire landscape.
A little ahead is a cut in the verge, take a U turn and drive next to the boundary wall, now to your left. Turn left as you come to the end of the boundary, drive on this kachcha path for a while, leaving the stench behind. Now on both sides of the path you will see the ubiquitous Vilayati Babul, the Mexican Mesquite, juliflora prosopis that has virtually overtaken large parts of the Aravallis and much else besides since its introduction into India by the British as an exotic plant that they imported from Mexico in the late 19 century.
As you continue to advance on this bumpy ride you will begin to notice that the Juliflora is no longer that dominant and other trees like Dhak, also known as the Flame of the Forest or Tesu, the Desi Keekar Jangal Jaleebi, Moonj, Churail Paapri, Frankincense – the source of many fragrances including the dhoop used in poojas, the Kadamb – growing along the water channels deep in the forest, the Banyan, the Pilkhan, the Bish Tendu and the magical Dhao, begin to gradually replace the Vilayati Keekar.
I had said earlier I am leading you to the divine… this is my idea of the divine. This forest, almost free of the obnoxious juliflora prosopis and filled mostly with the Dhao plant is the only natural forest left for scores of miles all around. This is heaven — a heaven that is now seriously threatened. But a little more about how it came into being and then about the threat.
According to local legend, a couple of hundred years ago a sadhu, known as Gudariya Baba, came to this area and started living in the forest. His fame spread and people from the surrounding villages began to flock to him. The Baba told the villagers to protect the forest, not to graze their animals in it and not to remove even a leaf. The villagers say that for 200 years they have guarded this forest and that is why it is so lush.
These are the trees that are native to the Aravallis, these are the trees that should be planted in all the bio-diversity parks in and around Delhi and this forest needs to be preserved, not only because of the variety of trees that grow here and the fauna that they sustain, but also because deep down the heart of the forest protects a unique feature. It is almost exclusively populated by the Dhao. If nibbled or grazed when small, the Dhao begins to grow like a very small shrub, hugging the rocks and forming a tough, thick carpet on the ground, but if it escapes grazing it grows into a fairly tall tree 10 to 15 meter high with thick- foliage.
The forest known as the Mangar Bani is seriously threatened. Land records have been doctored to show the forest as revenue land and large parts of it, except for the temple of Gudariya Baba and a few acres around it, have been sold and resold. Most of the agricultural land outside the forest has been bought by builders and real estate developers. Plans are afoot to build multi-story flats and forest view villas and what have you. Once the villas and designer apartments arrive, they will begin to sink in bore wells and draw water as they have in all of Gurgaon. The water table will sink as it has in Gurgaon and then Mangar Bani will see its end.
There is a Supreme Court order banning all construction activity in the forest but you can kill a forest by withdrawing water from the soil all around the forest and then, when the forest is dead, you can build rock-view apartments on the land that was once Mangar Bani, the only natural forest for scores of miles.
Mangar Bani is also a lung for the 30 million inhabitants of the NCR and an aquifer for all of us. Does any one care?
(First published in The Hindu.)