On Friday, March 1st the Supreme Court came down heavily on the Haryana government for passing amendments to the Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA) 1900, and throwing open an estimated 27,000 acres of land for construction and commercial activity. The apex court has ordered the state government not to implement the bill passed on Wednesday 27th February.
Simply put, the Punjab Land Preservation Act extends protection to the forests & trees on private land, community land, panchayat and municipal lands of the Aravallis and the Shivalik ranges. These are land parcels which cannot be notified under the Indian Forest Act, as they are not public land, but land owned privately. So PLPA is the only protection they have.
But this is also land which has immense market value by the virtue of its location. 16000 acres lie in Gurgaon district, now one of the most sought after commercial and residential hubs of Haryana. The other 10,000 acres are in the Faridabad district, also much coveted for its commercial and residential potential.
The amendments to the PLPA passed by the Haryana Assembly essentially ceases protection to all and any land that is included in the master plan as urban or for infrastructure and any other construction plans of the state government. It is akin to giving unlimited powers to the government to classify land however it pleases. And by making it retroactive from as far back as 1966, the state government will be able to legalise all the illegal transactions, mining and construction undertaken on PLPA lands since then.
Most importantly, the amendment passed effectively allow the Haryana government to subvert several of the Supreme Court’s decisions that support the protection of forest areas under the PLPA. No wonder the presiding bench of the Apex Court on Friday came down on the state government with some very strong statements
"Do you think you are supreme? It (amending PLPA) is sheer contempt of court,"
“You are not above the law...Legislature is not supreme...It is really shocking that you are trying to destroy the forests”
"You will do this to favour the builders...and that is why we had warned earlier."
"It's shocking that you still went ahead despite our warning,"
Take a look at the two previous cases in which the Supreme Court had given a clear ruling, stating its position that land under PLPA is indeed protected forest land.
In September 2018, the supreme court had ordered demolition of Kant Enclave, a residential colony in Faridabad on grounds that it was built on forest land prohibited under the PLPA Act.
The exact words of the September 11 judgment left no ambiguity for any misunderstanding. “We have no doubt that land notified by the State of Haryana under the provisions of the PLP Act must be treated as ‘forest’ and ‘forest land’.” The Supreme Court had said.
As early on as December 16, 2002, in a case initiated by MC Mehta, for air pollution in Delhi which was later extended through a subsequent application to cover illegal mining in Haryana, the apex court directed that no mining will be permitted in areas notified under Section 4 and Section 5 of the PLPA even if the notification period for the areas has expired.
But Haryana overturned this one as well, in one of the clauses of the PLPA amendment passed on February 28 this year.
Manohar Lal Khattar ’s government is not the first one which has tried to circumvent laws to open vast tracts of protected land for construction activity. Haryana government has been constantly trying to get the cap of 0.5% construction on Natural Conservation Zones (NCZ) removed. 1000s of acres of forest land have been lost under the previous governments as well, to colonizers.
What is shocking though is the impunity with which this government has attempted to subvert Supreme Court rulings by passing amendments to the Punjab Land Preservation Act, and stripping the Aravallis of much of its protection. The Chief Minister and the forest minister Rao Narbir Singh disregarded multiple stakeholders who tried to reason with them – citizens, forest & environment experts.
Today Haryana has the lowest forest cover; a meagre 3.5 percent, compared to the national average of 24 percent. Residents of Gurgaon, Faridabad and Delhi, are gasping for clean air and battling dwindling groundwater reserves. They’ve taken to the streets multiple times to protest against allowing construction and other commercial activities in the Aravalli green belt.
The ban on implementing the amended PLPA by the Apex Court comes as a huge respite.
Manisha Natarajan is the Editor - Real Estate & Urban Development at CNBC-TV18.