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Meet Sunil Harsana, The Activist On A Mission To Protect One Of NCR’s Last Green Forest

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The urban region of Delhi NCT is recognised for its historical landmarks and sky-high edifices. The lesser-known Aravalli hills, the last remaining green lungs of Delhi, are also an integral part of the state. The range spans over a large area covering the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Delhi. Like any other region, this ecologically sensitive area has also faced the brunt of degradation and destruction.

aravalli hills atop rajasthan
The lesser-known Aravalli hills, the last remaining green lungs of Delhi, are also an integral part of the state.

Over the years, the geology and ecology of the range have been disrupted steeply due to anthropogenic activities such as mining, excavation, extraction, and deforestation. Though the Supreme Court banned mining in the range in 2002, unless cleared by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), illegal mining has continued to operate. A 2018 report by a Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) claims that about 25% of the Aravalli range of Rajasthan has been lost due to illegal mining in 50 years.

Of the 22 districts of Haryana, Aravallis are found along the districts of Mewat, Faridabad, Gurugram, Mahendragarh and Rewari. All these areas have undergone heavy mining and construction activities in the past few years. Due to developmental projects, the ecology of these areas has been severely impacted. Groundwater has depleted to a great extent due to mining. Over-extraction has led to the conversion of such water-rich areas into deserts.

In a period of 35 years, District Faridabad has been affected by rapid urban growth, leading to alteration in natural topography. Lands previously used for agriculture or occupied as forests have now been converted for residential use. According to a study, over 310% of the urban area has increased in Faridabad, from 1970 to 2006. Mining areas increased to almost 600%, while water bodies have decreased by 40%.

In the fight to protect the Aravalli hills, several names of conservationists have come to light. Campaigns have been led, petitions have been filed, and changes have been suggested. One such case is of a small village, located at the Delhi-Haryana border, Mangar. Situated in the South Delhi Ridge of Aravallis, it falls under the Faridabad district of Haryana.

A still of Mangar village
No tree of the forest of Mangar Bani is cut ever and hence is a haven for birds. Photo: India Today

Mangar encloses a 250-hectare forest that has somehow survived like an artefact in the midst of an encroached city. Mangar Bani is a sacred grove that is one of the last standing natural regions in the mining-scarred Aravalli range. It acts as a wildlife corridor for Indian leopards. Consisting of several wetlands, it is also a source of groundwater recharge for the adjacent villages.

With dry, deciduous forest, the area forms a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife including leopards, hyenas, jackals, and numerous birds. This ecologically sensitive area is laden with a large variety of tree species such as Dhau, Dhak, Raunjh, Kumuth, Pasendu, and Kareel.

With urbanisation dawning upon the entire region of Delhi NCT, there still exist some who wish to protect their homelands. One of them is Sunil Harsana, an on-ground conservationist who is working to save the pristine forest of Mangar before it is damaged beyond repair.

In an interview with Youth Ki Awaaz, he talks about what inspired his work as a conservationist, his vision for Mangar and the challenges he has faced on the way.

A photo of Sunil Harsana, Ecologist
Sunil Harsana. Photo:Sunil Harsana/ RoundGlass sustain

Avni Gupta (AG): What inspired your work as a conservationist? And what is your vision for Mangar?

Sunil Harsana (SH): Being born in a village like Mangar, with such a forest around me, was probably what inspired me to protect this place. My vision for Mangar Bani is for it to remain as it always has been. The way in which the communities have protected the place, forests, and biodiversity for thousands of years, I wish the same protection is followed in the future. Whatever the authority believes works best for the forest – declaration of it as a Reserved Forest, Wildlife Sanctuary, Wildlife Corridor, or National Park – must be followed.

We must ensure that the faith and belief that has been associated with it for generations, is preserved.

AG: When did you begin working for the protection of Mangar Bani? How has your journey been towards getting it recognised as a significant forest?

SH: My journey with conservation of Mangar began about 10-11 years ago when I initially started understanding the situation and problems associated with the village. Encroachment in the forest started about that time, with the construction of farmhouses as the first step. Such human encroachment made me realise that it would soon lead to forests and sacred groves vanishing from this area.

At that time, I decided to reach out to people, and I began the work of conservation. Through this time, I have realised that other villagers choose to not act upon this, thinking that there’s no option B. But I felt, with or without options, one must try.

A photo of Mangar Forest by Pradip Krishen
Mangar encloses a 250-hectare forest that has somehow survived like an artefact in the midst of an encroached city. Photo: Pradip Krishen

AG: What challenges have you faced throughout this journey?

SH: Mangar conservation has faced immense problems and challenges in the last decade. When one speaks of forest/wildlife conservation, the primary challenge to consider is commercialisation. The corporate haul has led to imprudent utilisation of natural resources. This entire process is the biggest challenge in any form of conservation. Everything else that comes along the way is associated with commercialisation and reckless decision making. It ultimately leads to disruption of social systems and livelihoods in villages like ours.

AG: You have been exploring the forests for years, what major differences do you see in the structure of the forests? How has human interference affected a pristine forest like Mangar?

SH: Around the independence of India, Mangar was such a village for which no records were available with the government. The communities belonged and lived in the wild. With people from outside entering this village, they communicated with the native villagers, and human interference got on the rise. Privatisation that occurred in1965, followed by mining is known to be the most degrading factor. The floral and faunal diversity has been immensely damaged. A small area of Mangar Bani was somehow retained.

Due to privatisation, people began encroachment in natural areas. Water bodies and areas that allowed rainwater to reach the recharge zone, such as nallas, were utilised and converted to farmhouses. This way, the old Mangar was damaged. Today, Dhauj lake has almost no water. Prosopis (Vilayati Kikar) has devoured the village completely. Still, Mangar has somehow sustained.

Thankfully, forests have now begun to rejuvenate and regenerate. In highly impacted areas like deep mining pits with exposed groundwater, wildlife and their habitat are beginning to get restored. Natural resources have been lost. But, local wildlife and vegetation have recovered to some extent in the last decade. Invasive and exotic species have been introduced, but diversity has experienced an increase overall.

 

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AG: How have invasive species threatened the forest of Mangar?

SH: In an area with native species, when exotic species invade, they create an impact due to being aggressive and competitive in nature. In Mangar, where the unplanned human intrusion has happened for a long time, soil layers have been damaged and lost. Hence, Vilayati Kikar, Prosopis juliflora, has taken over.

The species has somehow, for some areas, proven to be useful. For instance, when mining was banned and the government introduced CLU (Change of Land Use), only Prosopis was able to expand and cover more area quickly. Forest and greenery were thus established with the aid of an invasive species. Instead, if a native species were laid down, it would have taken up a much longer time to be established. And by that time, the entire area would have been commercialised. Farmhouses and other industrial plans would have been plotted in those areas if they wouldn’t have been made “greener” soon.

In richer and protected areas like Mangar, Prosopis has affected other species’ germination rate. Lantana camara has also increased recently. I believe it is even more dangerous. Its risk is yet to be discovered in this area.

AG: How do the locals of Mangar perceive nature?

SH: Local communities residing in Mangar are no longer dependent on the forests. Hence, their concern for biodiversity has significantly reduced. Perception clearly depends on its usage. When at one time, locals were primarily dependent on cattle grazing, forests were useful to them. But today, as cities have developed, locals wish to modernise like those in Gurugram and Delhi and get inspired by their lifestyle standards. They’ve started valuing a standard lifestyle over forests.

 

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AG: How do local beliefs shape conservation in an area like Mangar Bani? Are there any interesting stories that people believe in?

SH: Mangar is an area with forest cover and several religious ashrams. It is believed that rishis used to pray in these ashrams. A famous story of Gudariya Das baba has decided the course of the Mangar. Gudariya baba is known to be an important sant who worshipped here for years, after which, he disappeared into a cave. He used to believe that the entire area of Bani should remain protected as a sacred grove. He also preached that no animals should be hunted down and no trees should be harmed.

This is the story that still protects the Bani. People still believe that if you cause harm to the sacred grove, you’ll be harmed in return. Mangar Bani, a sacred grove, has several emotions attached to it.

A photo of Mangar Bani. Down to Earth
We must ensure that the faith and belief that has been associated with it for generations is preserved. Photo: Down To Earth

AG: How has your work with eco-clubs impacted local perception?

SH: Mangar Eco-Clubs were established in the year 2015. We began this because we realised that the communities were now quite disconnected from forests. People had stopped valuing the forest and its resources. Direct connection with forests was lost. With the formation of Eco Clubs, we wanted people to still stay connected and bond with forests. We targeted students and tried to include nature and biodiversity conservation in their education.

Eco-Clubs initiated small-scale activities such as bird watching and butterfly count. Soon, we began our work in the field of conservation. Some enthusiastic students have even been supported for their education by individuals and organisations. Experienced conservationists and bird watchers from other areas soon joined and mentored these students. Students’ attitudes and perceptions towards forests have changed drastically ever since eco-clubs have been introduced.

Establishment of such Eco-Clubs aims at inculcating empathy towards nature from a young age. Ever since one is a toddler, they must be taught about conservation. The first time one encounters a trail of ants, their primary reaction is to kill them. This is exactly when we must begin informing them of the importance of ants in the ecosystem. Through this, children develop curiosity. This helps to develop respect for nature and continues throughout life.

AG: As urbanisation and construction has increased, there has been a rise in encroachment as well as loss of biodiversity in these parts. What, in your opinion, can be done about it? How effective have government policies been in this regard?

SH: We must decide a boundary and set a limit to everything. We must decide as to how much urbanisation and conservation are needed in an area. If we identify the natural resources in an area and their importance, we must decide to protect and conserve them. Urbanisation would thus be controlled and limited to certain areas. Set criteria as to what should be protected and what should be developed. Conservation shouldn’t be considered anti-development. The term development should rather be redefined.

The government generally promotes development, which is ultimately to obtain monetary benefits. However, these are short-termed visions. Conservation on the other hand must be thought of in a long-term manner, say 50 or 100 years. Conservation requires systematic planning and development.

The subsistence of pristine sacred groves in the midst of development-driven cities points towards the robustness and significance of biodiversity. As outsiders, the least we can do is listen, understand, and stand up for such communities and issues that forests are facing today.

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