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Global Ideas

At the crossroads of development and conservation

Barely an hour's drive from India's capital New Delhi lies the sacred grove of Mangar Bani. The ancient forest is at the heart of a conflict that pits the environment and tradition against development and politics.

In the central square of Mangar, a 2,000-strong village near the southern periphery of India's capital New Delhi, a chat with men smoking a large hookah quickly turns to the question of development.

"We would like this to be the next Gurgaon," says one of them, referring to the glitzy nearby township full of high-rise residential flats, malls and offices. Others nod in agreement.

Four men sit together in a village square (DW/A. Andre)

Without work, people here find other ways to spend their time. But joblessness is a topic of much discussion

This is unlikely to happen anytime soon. In June 2016, after years of petitions and protests by civilian pressure groups, the new state government of Haryana, under which Mangar falls, put an end to any construction in the Mangar Bani grove and a buffer zone of 500 meters on the forest around it.

Though it sounds like a hard-fought victory, the area is still a source of contention. Mangar Bani, which lies in the Aravallis, a mountain range deemed older than the Himalayas, is a virgin patch of ancient forestland that has been preserved for centuries by the villagers who consider it sacred.

In its center stands a temple for the local saint Gudariya Das Baba, who ordered them not to cut so much as a twig growing in the 677 acres of the grove.

"I'm not sure if you should call it religion or superstition," says Pradip Krishen, author of "Trees of Delhi."

"But either way, it seems to have worked. No one takes their animals into the grove for grazing.”

Development dreams

The designated 1,200-acre buffer zone around Mangar Bani largely consists of woodland. And though the local population continues to protect the sacred grove, they would be happy to see this land given over to wider roads, high-rise buildings and industry.

For their part, real estate developers and investors would be willing to oblige.

A lush green forest (DW/A. Andre)

There is a long local tradition of taking care of the sacred grove of Mangar Ban

But environmentalists argue that the lush greenery of the area not only plays a vital role in the fight to improve air quality in Delhi - considered one of the most polluted cities in the world - but also helps replenish the national capital region's groundwater levels.

"It is generally true that as our cities spread to cover all the ground with cement, the possibilities of groundwater recharge shrink," says Krishen.

"The native rock of the northern Aravallis is quartzite, and quartzite which is brittle and crystalline and severely faulted in many places is known to be particularly good for allowing rainwater to recharge aquifers. I'd say it is a perfect example of a great recharge zone."

Fragile victory

Environmental activist Chetan Agarwal became actively involved in trying to preserve the forest after reading Krishen's book on the flora in Mangar Bani. He is cautiously optimistic about the future of the coveted woodland area. "They say that in conservation, all the victories are temporary - but the losses are permanent."

For the men sitting in the Mangar village square, the question of victory versus loss could hardly be more pertinent. It is a weekday, but they have no work. As they leisurely pass the hookah around, they lament a Supreme Court ruling that in 2002 banned stone mining due to environmental concerns, in the process ruining their livelihoods, they say.

Agarwal showed DW pictures, taken over a period of several years, which clearly depicted a pit. Though devoid of water during the mining era, this pit had begun to fill up again once the quarrying stopped. Vegetation in the area has also now grown back - a conservation success.

A woman walks down a dusty village street (DW/A. Andre)

Some say the village would benefit from development, but it is a contentious issue

Contentious land ownership raises questions

But for Rajveer, a man in his forties wearing a bright yellow shirt, this is meaningless. "I have been unemployed since mining was banned. My earnings have taken a major hit," he said.

He used to work as a driver in the stone quarries, employing others to load and unload his truck. Like him, they are now facing a difficult future. And June's ruling banning construction in the area has compounded the uncertainty.

"The land and the jungle belongs to the villagers, and the government should let us stay in control," he said.

But the Panchayat or village committee says it owns the land, and that its distribution to individuals - which happened decades ago, and made it possible for private developers to buy up plots - was illegal.

Committee members now want that process reversed, and may seek legal action to make this happen.

Because if the land remains in the hands of real estate developers and a future government were to support further construction, the village would not even be able to claim the sacred grove as its own to protect.

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