“Your life is dependent on the oldest fold mountains in the world, and they’re dying. Do you value your life and the future of your children?”
With this critical question, Veer Ojas Khanna, a 16-year-old school student from Gurgaon began his talk at the Youth Ki Awaaz Summit 2019. At an age when he should be in school, Veer is among the hundreds of residents in Gurgaon who take to the streets to protest the destruction of the beautiful Aravalli forests on both sides of the Gurugram- Faridabad road.
The Aravalli Bachao movement began as a protest against the Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar’s cabinet to amend the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), which opened up 33% of the forest land in Haryana for urbanisation and real estate development, which puts nearly 30,000 acres of forests at risk of complete destruction.
“Haryana has the lowest forest cover among all states in the country – 3.95%. It’s flanked in the south by the Aravallis, which are under serious, serious threat,” said Veer.
Spread over 692 km-long mountain ranges, the Aravallis have been a crucial source of sustenance for the people in Delhi and Gurgaon. Known popularly as the lungs of the Delhi-NCR belt, this range of forest cover recharges the groundwater in the region, provides fresh air and acts as a barrier from the dust storms and hot dry winds coming from the Thar desert. “Moreover, the forests are an invaluable biodiversity hotspot,” said Veer. “It preserves in itself an innumerable species of plants and animals.”
Veer is not just a man of words. He speaks equally for the Aravallis through his actions. With his sister Manya, he created the Climate Action Group in Gurgaon, a platform where anyone who’s concerned about the alarming effects of climate change can be a part of the change. The group began its work by protesting the amendment to the PLPA. “Since 2002, the Haryana State Government has not put any efforts into renewing the PLPA, which expired. Then, the PLPA amendment bill was passed in February 2019, negating the very ideas based on which it was originally instated. This led to the opening of doors for several construction projects in the area, leaving the rich, natural heritage of the Aravallis open to danger,” he said.
At a time when the air quality in the NCR region is at its worst, the loss of such lush greenery is expected to trigger a fresh wave of respiratory infections and illnesses. In the last year alone, schools in the NCR region were forced to shut for weeks on end because of the poor quality of air. Such a move to reduce forest cover further, would certainly result in an increased frequency of school shut downs and severely impact residents’ quality of life.
“We have no time left,” said Veer. “The fight is for our future.”
To get things moving, Veer recently began an initiative ‘Walks to Aravallis’, to sensitise residents about the irreplaceable importance of the forests, which he believes is the key to making people care more about the forests. “A lack of understanding is the reason for people’s ignorance and indifference.”
His talk reminded people, time and again, that the fight was real and urgent, and absolutely necessary. “If I am doing my job right, it would make you want to take action. This is a fight you and I have to win,” he said.
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