Amid vociferous protests and walkout by the Opposition, the Haryana Assembly on Wednesday passed amendments to an act, opening up thousands of acres to real estate and other non-forest activity that were protected under it for over a century.
Chief Minister ML Khattar said the Punjab Land Preservation (Haryana Amendment) Bill, 2019, was the "need of the hour", saying as it was a "very old" act and much has changed over the period of time.
During the nearly one-hour debate on the legislation, the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) alleged that the bill had been brought by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to favour the mining mafia and real estate developers by allowing construction in areas where it was previously disallowed, a charge rejected by the treasury benches.
The Punjab Land Preservation Act was enacted before pre-Partition by the then Punjab government in 1900, as per statement of objects of the bill. It provided for the conservation of subsoil water and/or prevention of erosion in areas found to be subject to erosion or likely to become liable to erosion.
The orders and notifications issued under Section 4 and/or 5 of the act extend to approximately 10,945 sq km, accounting roughly for about 25-percent area of Haryana. It covers, wholly or partly, 14 out of the state's 22 districts.
Justifying the amendment, Khattar said a vast proportion of the area covered under the act include privately-owned lands and those that have traditionally been under agriculture and other non-forestry uses like public infrastructure.
The chief minister said a number of changes had come to force over a period of time with various interpretations of the PLPA provisions from time to time.
"These have also led to large tracts of agriculture, public infrastructure, residential, institutional, commercial and other users becoming liable to be considered as unauthorized activities and unlawful uses even where these were explicitly permitted and came up strictly in conformity and in accordance with the then existing applicable law governing such land use and activities undertaken thereupon," as per the statement of objects of the bill.
In this scenario, lakhs of dwelling units, commercial buildings, industrial units, public buildings, massive public infrastructure and agriculture activities over about one-fourth of the geographical area of the state are affected, hence the need was felt for amending the PLPA, Khattar said.
The Opposition, who demanded that the PLPA be withdrawn or put on hold till a House committee examines it, staged a brief walkout when it was being passed.
Former chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and senior Congress leader Raghuvir Singh Kadian demanded that an assembly committee be formed to examine the bill. Senior INLD leader Parminder Dhull asked what was the "hidden agenda" of the BJP government in bringing this bill.
Congress Legislature Party leader Kiran Chowdhary said the state's forest cover was already depleting. "If the amendment is passed, southern Haryana, especially those near Aravalli mountain range will face desertification."
Congress member Karan Singh Dalal claimed that the amendment would also grant legitimacy to the Kant Enclave in Faridabad, built on the PLPA-notified land and which was ordered to be demolished by the Supreme Court.
"This is going to be the biggest scam of five-year BJP government, which will favour builders and realtors, this bill should be taken back," Dalal said.
Dalal, however, said he did not have a reservation if the government had brought this bill "to save Kant enclave, but other serious environmental consequences which the legislation may have on the Aravallis, needs to be kept in mind".
Congress MLA Lalit Nagar wondered why such a bill had been introduced that would have a "catastrophic" impact on the environment. "The Supreme Court has also ordered against allowing any non-forest activity in the area. Even if this bill is passed, courts will strike it down."Finance Minister Abhimanyu said if Dalal or any member had an objection to any clause of the bill, they should make it clear, rather than levelling "baseless allegations". "He (Dalal) is following shoot-and-scoot policy only to make it to newspaper headlines, Abhimanyu added.