New Delhi: The Haryana government’s plans to develop the “world’s largest safari” in the Aravalli range remains a bone of contention, months after it was announced by Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar last September. The government is banking on the project — a tender for which was issued eight months ago — to increase tourism and build awareness about the environment and wildlife, but not everyone is convinced.
On 19 January, a group of NCR residents, activists and conservationists under the banner of the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement submitted a letter addressed to Union minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Bhupender Yadav, secretary, Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) Leena Nandan, and Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, urging them to scrap the Aravalli Safari Park project.
“With the aim of the Haryana government being to increase the number of tourists coming to the Aravalli safari part, the resulting increase in human presence, vehicular traffic, construction, water usage, waste generated will have a negative impact on the fragile Aravalli ecosystem which is being ravaged by illegal mining in the belt,” said the letter which has six conservationists — Waterman of India Dr Rajendra Singh, Prerna Bindra, Dr Ghazala Shahabuddin, Neha Sinha, Dr Pia Sethi, and Meera Chandra as signatories. ThePrint has seen the letter.
This is not the first time that the project has drawn opposition. Days ago, another set of residents from Gurugram, concerned about the ecology of the region, had written to the Supreme Court, requesting it “to consider cancellation of the tender” for the proposed safari park. They had also submitted their representation to the state chief secretary, and other officials on 22 September last year, which raised the same grievances against the project. ThePrint has also seen this letter.
However, government officials that ThePrint spoke to said that the objections are too hasty and made without understanding their intention of “restoration” and “conservation” behind it.
“The proposed safari project will cover no more than 10 per cent of the 10,000-acre project. The rest of the area is meant for eco-restoration,” said M.D. Sinha, principal secretary to government, Haryana tourism department.
He added that objections are premature. “Preliminary design of the project is not even conceived yet. It is in its initial design stages and it hasn’t even started yet. It is a complex project that will take over a decade to be implemented.”
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What’s at stake
The proposed safari park will cover parts of Gurugram and Nuh districts, according to details shared by the government. It will have a herpetarium for reptiles and amphibians, a bird park, four zones for big cats, a large area for herbivores, and another for exotic animals. While unveiling the project last September, CM Khattar had announced it would have an underwater world, nature trails, zones for tourists, botanical gardens, biomes, equatorial, tropical, coastal, and desert areas.
Members of the Aravalli Bachao Citizens Movement claimed that the main focus of the safari park is not the conservation of the Aravalli range, but revenue generation for Haryana. According to Neelam Ahluwalia, one of the founding members of Aravalli Bachao, their submission has two parts, in which the “first talks about seven major objections towards the project and the second is about what the region needs — that plan has been provided by experts.”
Objections range from how authorities were promoting putting animals in enclosures and endangering an already water-scarce region through plans of creating an underwater zone, to obstruction caused to movements of wildlife by building fences and waste generation and other degradation owing to massive construction.
When ThePrint asked Sinha about the objections around putting animals in cages, he said, “Zoo in today’s times is not what it was earlier. This safari park will have specially curated enclosures where it would be the humans in cages, mobile or otherwise, and animals would be the ones freely roaming in their natural habitat. Safari is important to protect the wildlife because today’s generation is far removed from nature. They can’t even distinguish one species from the other. These kinds of activities will help them generate more empathy towards wildlife,” he said.
According to the tender issued in May 2022 and available on the Haryana government website, some of the government’s objectives are to increase the average time spent by national/international tourists in Haryana, spread in geographical locations touched by them, and increase both government and private investment in tourism and related sectors in the state.
There are plans to build animal cages, guest houses, research centres, laboratories, and infrastructure for visitors such as parking facilities, ticket counters, hotels, restaurants, auditoriums, toilets, etc. Zip flyers, cable cars, and eco-village with handicraft stores and restaurants are also a part of the plan, as well as landscaped gardens with fountains, elephant and horse rides and recreation clubs to host conferences.
But those opposed to the project fear the “intervention of making Aravallis a major tourist destination will result in the destruction of the native ecosystem by clearing of trees, undergrowth, vegetation, grasses, ponds and other niche habitats used by the resident wildlife”.
The letter by conservationists added that these lands were not just protected under Forest Conservation Act (FCA) and Supreme Court judgment, but the project threatened a region with a rich diversity of native wildlife, including 180 species of birds,15 species of mammals, 29 species of reptiles and 57 species of butterflies, apart from the big cats.
Section 2 of the FCA, restricts any state government from de-reserving forests or the use of forest land, or any portion of it, for non-forest purposes.
However, Sinha, who is among those helming the project, reiterated that the main aim behind the safari park is public sensitisation towards environment and wildlife. He added that he himself had been working for the conservation of the Aravalli for the past 20-25 years and wouldn’t do anything that goes against his belief system. Only a few 100 acres of land were going to be used for museums and other complexes, he claimed.
Aravalli Bachao members have also raised concerns about water security, arguing that groundwater levels in Gurugram and Nuh regions have been categorised as overexploited, with tubewells, borewells and ponds running dry. Groundwater aquifers under the Aravalli hills hold immense quantities of water and act to release it slowly. Any disturbance or alterations in the pattern could significantly alter the groundwater table, claimed the letter.
The suggestion was to simply leave the Aravalli ecosystem alone to serve the critical ecological functions, identify endangered/at-risk species (plants, animals, birds, insects and simply focus on the area’s “restoration” by giving its responsibility to the forest Department and local panchayats. The only ‘tourism’ allowed should be “nature walks and guided bird-watching trips”, said the letter.
“Aravalli hills and forests offer a great experience of trekking, hiking, cycling and healing forest spaces to help people unwind from the hustle-bustle of busy life in the cities. These activities can help to develop nature tourism that will benefit the villagers by contributing positively to the local economy through homestays and villagers being employed as guides,” it added.
‘Information hard to come by’
Sinha suggested that protesters and conservationists should wait for the designs and other documents to be prepared and published in the public domain first.
However, Neelam Ahluwalia and other members claimed that information is hard to come by. “There have been conversations going around the project since last year but the government has been really closed about the details. Only the (government’s) Express of Interest document has been made public. We first sent our position paper to the six leading conservationists and they provided their input. So, that process took time,” she said.
The tender in question was uploaded on the Haryana government website on 16 May last year as an ‘Expression of Interest’ for an “International Design Competition” for the development of the Aravalli Safari Park proposed to be built in the districts of Nuh and Gurugram. On 29 September, Khattar announced the “jungle safari scheme” — as a joint venture between MoEFCC and the state government, as the NCR of Haryana had “immense potential for the development.” Two companies were also selected to implement the project though the details were not shared.
Earlier objections and govt’s response
Meanwhile, the other citizens’ group, which doesn’t go under a formal name and has already made a representation in the apex court against the project, told ThePrint that they were also working on a petition that will be filed in the Supreme Court soon.
“Our concerns are the same as those expressed by the Aravalli Bachao organisation. They (the government) are talking about an ‘underwater world’. Gurugram has been declared as ‘overexploited’ as per the CGWA of India. We are already in the ‘red zone’. There’s no water. How are they going to start an underwater zone in Aravalli? Where are they going to get the water from? Will it be extracted through borewells or come from STPs (Sewage Treatment Plants). Then comes the question of laying pipes. It’s just illogical,” claimed Vaishali Rana, one of the signatories.
The group’s representation to the Supreme Court claimed that the project was illegal and violative of the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 (FCA) as the location proposed “entirely fell in a forest area”, according to the government’s land records. The area would be also considered under the category of ‘forest’ under orders and directions terming it so that were passed by the SC and the National Green Tribunal in their judgments.
In case of both the submissions, no response from the government had been received claimed the groups. According to both Ahluwalia and Rana, they were expecting this and would put more effort to convey their message to the government in the coming days.
Officials from the MoEFCC told ThePrint that the complainants would receive a response after their requests were reviewed and it “must be currently under process if they haven’t received it yet”.
(Edited by Smriti Sinha)
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