In Haryana’s Aravallis, BJP and Congress netas bulldoze the law

The Aravallis are an ecological treasure trove but forest cover is shrinking. Among those encroaching upon land is a former environment minister.

WrittenBy:Ayush Tiwari& Basant Kumar
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Approximately an hour south of Delhi, the dusty highway skirts the villages of Ankhir, Mewla Maharajpur and Anangpur. The villages are part of the forest areas of the Aravalli, the oldest range of fold mountains in India and an ecological treasure trove.

In August 2021, following a Supreme Court order, the Faridabad forest department demolished some constructions in Ankhir village. A section of the mainstream media reported the demolition drive, but the reports didn’t mention that among the structures removed were those owned by Vipul Goel, Haryana’s minister of environment and climate change between 2016 and 2019, and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Two kilometres from Goel’s property is Raj Vilas, a marriage hall spread over two acres in Mewla Maharajpur and owned by senior Congress member Mahendra Pratap Singh who was the minister of revenue and industry in the second Bhupinder Singh Hooda government, between 2009 and 2014.

Within a kilometre of Raj Vilas is another marriage hall, owned by advocate Sandeep Chaprana, who describes himself as a “BJP youth leader” on Facebook. Nearby is a cow shelter run by BJP’s Kailash Baisla, a former councillor of Greenfield colony in Faridabad.

An investigation by Newslaundry has found that an array of politicians are involved in encroaching land that comes under the Punjab Land Preservation Act. Construction on this land is in violation of the law.

The shrinking forest cover of the Aravallis

An hour’s drive from the national capital lies Surajkund, a 1,000 year old reservoir believed to have been built by Surajpal, a Tomar king who made ancient Delhi – or Dhilika – his capital in the 10th century AD. Much older than Surajkund are the surrounding forest hills of Aravallis, the mountain range that starts near Delhi and stretches all the way to Gujarat. With a highway cutting through the forest and encroachments into forest areas that date back to the colonial era, there’s little left of the Aravallis, which used to be a dense, diverse ecology that once dulled the blazing edge of north Indian summers.

Even in their depleted condition, the Aravallis remain an important ecological asset. They guard the northern plains from desertification from the west; check Delhi’s air pollution; and collect water from the Indus and Gangetic basins. The forest is also home to honey badgers, the great Indian bustard, leopards, foxes, hyenas and much more wildlife.

The Aravallis have been under duress for more than a century now. In Empire and Environmental Anxiety, scholar James Beattie writes that in 1900, the PLPA was passed to check soil erosion and sand drift in Punjab, partly caused by British policies of settlement that had led to deforestation, overgrazing and “uncontrolled exploitation” of land. PLPA is still in place and Supreme Court directives over the years have stated that land enclosed within the PLPA will be protected under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. This means the land will not be used for “non-forest purpose” without the permission of the centre.

Yet careless urbanisation, encroachment and mining in the Aravallis have continued into the present. According to a central empowered committee to the Supreme Court, 31 out of 128 Aravalli hills mapped by the Forest Survey of India in Rajasthan have disappeared.

In Faridabad district, which has only 9,000 hectares (ha) of forest cover, Aravalli land has been used to set up marriage halls, ashrams, cow shelters and a shooting range. This is despite 5,439 ha of forest land in Faridabad district being closed under PLPA.

Former environment minister violated PLPA

In June 2020, a report was prepared by the deputy commissioner of Faridabad for Haryana government’s wildlife and forest department after the National Green Tribunal ordered the Faridabad administration to identify land protected under the PLPA in Gurugram, Faridabad and Nuh districts of Haryana.

On the first page of the report’s annexure, which listed violations on forest land, is BJP’s Vipul Goel. In the “type of structure” section, the report identifies the construction on Goel’s property in Ankhir village as a “farm house”, and says it lacks the necessary permissions under FCA. According to the Faridabad administration, Goel, 49, owns nearly 11 acres in Ankhir and had been notified about the violation in 2018.

Goel’s election affidavit says he owns 3.8 acres of land in Ankhir, which he purchased in March 2013 for over Rs 64 lakh.

Back in 2013, Goel was the most affluent sitting member of the legislative assembly in Haryana, with assets worth Rs 106 crore.

In violation of the FCA, Goel built rooms for his staff on the Ankhir property. “Work began here three years ago,” said a Faridabad-based forest activist, requesting anonymity. “Goel levelled the land, culled the vegetation, and used hill rocks to build a boundary wall.”

Aas Mohammad Khan, a staffer at Goel’s property, confirmed this. “He was going to build a farmhouse here,” Khan said. “In the last three years, hundreds of trucks brought soil here to level the earth.”

BJP leader Vipul Goel
The remains of demolition at Goel’s property in Ankhir village in Faridabad.

Aside from the encroachment of forest land, Goel’s actions point to a serious conflict of interest. In February 2019, when Goel had the environment portfolio, Haryana’s BJP government amended the PLPA, opening up nearly 30,000 hectares of protected land – including swathes of Aravallis – for real estate and mining. The following month, the apex court stayed the amendment.

Newslaundry reached out to Goel for comment. “Our property is very old. A lot of people own property there. So what difference does my ownership make?” said Goel.

The former minister claimed he owned only four acres of land in Ankhir village. “There was a cow shelter on my property for the last eight years. We did not construct anything there,” he claimed. “The demolition was done after a Supreme Court order and I’m not above the law. During the Congress government in Haryana, I got a stay order from the Punjab and Haryana High Court against demolition of the boundary wall.”

Goel refused to share a copy of the stay order.

Marriage of politics and encroachment

Also listed in the Faridabad administration’s report is Raj Vilas marriage hall, which is built on property owned by senior Congress leader Mahendra Pratap Singh. The construction is a PLPA violation, without permission under FCA.

Incidentally, Singh, 71, was the minister of revenue and industry in the second Hooda government between 2009 and 2014. Earlier, he was Haryana’s food and supplies minister between 1991 and 1996.

In the Hooda government, Singh’s portfolios included power, labour and employment, local bodies, renewable energy, food supplies and technical education. According to a 2014 election affidavit, Singh’s assets exceed Rs 69 crore.

Singh bought the two-acre property in Mewla Maharajpur village in September 2003 for Rs 17.5 lakh, according to his election affidavit which describes the land as “agricultural property”. In late 2019, Singh leased it out to one Anil Kumar who now runs Raj Vilas marriage hall.

According to Wedding Wire, a website that connects customers with wedding professionals, a day’s rent at Raj Vilas – which can accommodate nearly 2,000 people – starts at Rs 5.5 lakh. Kumar told Newslaundry that a portion of the revenue generated by the marriage hall goes to Singh.

Raj Vilas was listed for demolition, but Singh moved court and procured a stay. Speaking to Newslaundry, Singh questioned the Supreme Court’s view that land under PLPA should be protected as forest area and said his property had been carved out in 1982, when it was owned by a construction company. Singh purchased it in the 2000s.

“I don’t believe the activity on my property is illegal. We have challenged this in court,” Singh told Newslaundry. “Around 30% of all properties in Haryana are built on PLPA land. That land cannot be treated as a forest. This has not been taken into account and the interpretation is flawed. There are farmers who grow food on PLPA land. Should they go hungry? Second, many people in Faridabad own PLPA land. How can there be private properties in a forest? If not, then the government should compensate private owners.”

Congress politician Mahendra Pratap Singh
Raj Villa marriage hall in Mewla Maharajpur in Faridabad.

Demolition drive

Within a kilometre of Raj Vilas, structures on two more properties in Mewla Maharajpur were identified as illegal by Faridabad district administration. One plot belongs to local BJP leader Kailash Baisla, the former councillor of Greenfield colony in Faridabad. The other belongs to advocate and “BJP youth leader” Sandeep Chaprana.

According to a local activist, Chaprana is close to Krishan Pal Gujjar, the member of parliament from Faridabad and minister of state for social justice and empowerment in prime minister Narendra Modi’s government. Chaprana’s Facebook gallery includes many pictures with the minister.

Chaprana’s plot is five acres and much like Singh, Chaprana had a marriage hall on his property. However, this venue was demolished by the district administration in August 2021.

In a notice to Chaprana in February 2021, accessed by Newslaundry, Faridabad’s range forest officer stated Chaprana had taken up “non-forestry activities” at the property and violated Supreme Court orders, PLPA and the FCA. This included “illegal encroachment”, “levelling of ground”, “breaking of land”, “erection of boundary wall” and “constructing concrete structures”.

“You are also directed to remove all the construction etc and restore original status of the land,” the notice warned, adding that Chaprana would be booked under the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Forest Act (1927) and the FCA if he did not comply.

Chaprana's elder brother, Pradeep, spoke to Newslaundry on Chaprana’s behalf. “This is our ancestral land. The marriage hall was ours,” said Pradeep Chaprana. “It was given on rent to a businessman from Delhi. In return, we would get Rs 50,000 every month in rent. It was demolished after the Supreme Court order. Our losses amount to Rs 20 lakh.”

Sandeep Chaprana
The demolished marriage hall on Chaprana’s property in Faridabad.

The consequences of violating PLPA and FCA may not be a particularly daunting for Baisla, who was one of the accused in the murder of Ravinder Singh, a property dealer who was shot dead in Faridabad.

However, in August 2021, Baisla was faced with some structures and the boundary wall on his property being demolished by the Faridabad administration.

Baisla’s property is spread over an acre along the Surajkund highway. He bought it from local farmers in 2000. Between 2007 and 2012, Baisla was the councillor of Greenfield colony in Faridabad. His wife succeeded him between 2012 and 2017. Now his daughter Hema holds that post.

On his property, Baisla levelled the mountain and replaced the vegetation with manicured lawns. Two solid structures have been built here – a room for staffers who look after the land, and beside it a cow shelter.

Kailash Baisla
The solid structures at Baisla’s property in Faridabad.
Demolished walls at Baisla’s property.

Newslaundry reached out to Baisla for comments.

Baisla said he had secured an injunction from the Faridabad district court against the demolition of the boundary wall on his property in February 2020. The August demolition, he alleged, violated the court’s pronouncement. A copy of the injunction, perused by Newslaundry, states that in 2020, the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad had sought to demolish the walls citing violation of the Haryana Municipal Act. The demolition drive in August, however, was conducted citing violation of PLPA and FCA.

“The farm houses are being selectively demolished here,” Baisla alleged. “Those willing to bribe the administration suffer no loss.”

Gurugram’s divisional forest officer Raj Kumar called Baisla’s allegation “baseless”. “Don't just trust what I say,” Kumar told Newslaundry, “go check whose property has been demolished or not demolished. The demolition drive has stopped for now, but we did take down illegal constructions. In the case of politician Mahendra Pratap [Singh] and others, they were spared because they moved court. So we did not proceed with demolition.”

The Aravallis vs Politicians

At 1,588 square kilometres, Haryana has the lowest forest cover in India and this should be a cause for concern because changes in forest cover can have serious climatic impact.

In 2017, chief minister of Haryana Manohar Lal Khattar seemed to acknowledge this when he said he wanted to increase the state’s forest cover to 10% by 2020. Yet his erstwhile environment minister, Goel, was levelling the laws and the forest to build a farmhouse; just as Congress’s Singh had done in the past.

It’s worrying that a “youth leader” and a local councillor are now following their seniors’ footsteps. Meanwhile, the state government of Haryana moved the Supreme Court earlier this year, arguing land under PLPA should not be considered a forest. Environment activists challenged this interpretation. In an intervention application, Aravalli Bachao Citizens Group told the apex court that Haryana’s reading of the PLPA was a “blatantly misguided attempt” to justify the 2020 amendment. The case is now ongoing, which makes it possible for people like Singh to argue they haven’t encroached into forest areas.

The story of the politicians’ attitude to the Aravallis is one of abuse of power, but we tend to overlook such transgressions because crimes like encroachment are usually considered minor. Despite mountains of scientific evidence to show how climate change negatively impacts everything from the average temperature to water levels and agriculture, the prevailing attitude seems to be to ignore the problem and instead encourage practises that exacerbate the climate crises.

The dilemma is conventionally framed as a choice between preserving the environment and encouraging development, but these politicians’ cases suggest that in Haryana, the contest is between individual greed and the greater good.

This story is part of the NL Sena project which our readers contributed to. It was made possible by Rajdeep Adhikari, Shubham Kesharwani, Kunju Nayak, Abhimanyu Sinha, Himanshu Badhani, Masood Hasan Khan, Tanmay Sharma, Puneet Vishnawat, Sandeep Roy, Bharadwaj, Sai Krishna, Ayesha Siddiqua, Varuna JC, Anubhuti Varshney, Loveen Vuppala, Srinivas Rekapally, Avinash Maurya, Pavan Nishad, Abhishek Kumar, Somsubhro Chaudhuri, Sourav Agrawal, Animesh Chaudhary, Jim J, Mayank Baranda, Pallavi Das, Mayuri Walke, Saina Kathawala, Asim, Deepak Tiwari, Mohsin Jabir, Abhijeet More, Nirupam Singh, Prabhat Upadhyaya, Umesh Chander, Somasekhara Sarma, Pranav Satyam, Hitesh Vekariya, Savio Varghese, Asutosh Mourya, Nimish Dutt, Reshma Roshan, Satakarni, and other NL Sena members.

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