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Knock on woods

Syed Shaz | Updated on April 28, 2021

For the future: Sunil Harsana, a resident of Mangar village, seeks to ensure that the Bani remains a sanctuary for birds, animals and people alike   -  SYED SHAZ

Ecologist Sunil Harsana on saving the Mangar Bani, a 250-hectare forest next to a concrete jungle

* Sunil Harsana, 30, was born and raised in Mangar Village, which lies in the shadow of the Bani hills and forests

* In 2015, he founded the Mangar Eco Club, which seeks to make local and urban children aware of the forest and all that it holds

* He was awarded by the Sanctuary Nature Foundation its ₹3-lakh ‘Mud On Boots’ conservation fund

* * * *

It’s not quite far from the madding crowd; in fact, it abuts the skyscraper-studded city of Gurugram. But it seems like another world: A deep valley with short stunted trees and birds flitting from branch to branch. Through the branches you see the rocky and unforgiving terrain of the Aravalli landscape in northwestern India.

This is Mangar Bani, just around 10 km from the glitzy condominiums of Gurugram. The Bani, as it is often referred to, is a 250-hectare forest and is known for the shrine of the sage, Baba Gudariya Das, who went into deep meditation within one of the rocky crevices in the valley. The distinct white-coloured shrine is protected by Gujjar community living in the surrounding villages of Mangar, Bandhwari and Baliawaas. The locals believe that the Baba, in turn, protects the people and the region.

The Gujjar community is strict about certain regulations that need to be observed while at the Bani. For the locals it means any kind of tree cutting, felling or grazing by animals is strictly forbidden. Outsiders cannot have alcohol, play loud music or behave aggressively. No one is allowed to hunt or trap animals.

The Bani is a sanctuary for birds, animals and people alike. And among those trying to ensure that it remains so is Sunil Harsana, a resident of Mangar village. As much a native as the trees and rocks around him, he talks about the forest that is next to a populated urban cluster.

“The Aravallis are godfather-less,” he says.

Change with the times: The Aravalli wilderness is often dismissed as a convenient tradeoff in the quest for development   -  SYED SHAZ

 

Harsana, 32, born and raised in Mangar Village, which lies in the shadow of the Bani hills and forests, has been campaigning actively for protecting the woods around him for 10 years now. Polio contracted at an early age left one of his legs non-functional; a sturdy, locally sourced wooden staff is his walking aid today. This has never once handicapped him, though. In fact despite his physical disability, he often outpaces companions while on long walks on the particularly harsh and uneven terrain of the Aravallis, adroitly skipping from one rock to the other.

The Aravallis have had an inextricable relationship with people. Rocks mined from these hills have been used as building material for centuries. The Aravallis also provide the invaluable function of recharging groundwater and the greenery effectively sequesters carbon and releases oxygen to an otherwise resource starved Gurugram and its suburbs. This is a water catchment area of Gururgam and Faridabad.

Harsana’s efforts to raise awareness about the Aravallis include public engagement platforms on social media, his initiation of the youth from his Gujjar community who help him in basic conservation activities such as repairing check dams and planting native trees, as well as his engagement with urbanites who come here for birding tours. In 2015, he founded the Mangar Eco Club, which seeks to make local and urban children aware of the forest and all that it holds.

When he began his campaign 10 years ago, it was quite an uphill struggle since not much was known about the Bani and the Aravallis, and his efforts to protect what was precious to him had few takers.

Harsana is now supported by citizen awareness groups, NGOs and even government bodies. He helps ecologists, researchers and anyone studying the Aravallis understand the landscape. For his efforts in conserving the Bani Aravallis, he was awarded by the Sanctuary Nature Foundation, an environmental group, its ₹3-lakh ‘Mud On Boots’ conservation fund for his campaign from 2019 to 2020.

Back at his house, a little outside Mangar on the road leading towards Dhauj village, I ask him about the issues that plague the stretch of contiguous forest between Mangar in the North and Khor village in the South. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar declared the Bani forest area a No Construction Zone in 2016 but large tracts of land remain unprotected.

The ownership of the hills and forests was passed on from the local panchayats to the villagers through a court order in 1970. Thereafter began the sale of land by villagers to private owners in the 1980s. Most villagers benefited, but there were some who worried about the environment.

“This is forest land — and forests cannot be up for sale,” Harsana says.

Harsana carries on his campaign for saving the Aravallis, which is under threat from illegal mining and urban expansion. The Gujjars living around the hills have used the Aravallis for food, fuel and also for tending to the cattle that rove over large tracts of the undulating landscape to feed on the natural undergrowth.

“It’s the freedom of movement that I associate with these forests and the hills,” he says — a sentiment that resonates with his ancestors’ lifestyles of being able to walk across large tracts with their cattle, something that a few in the community still do.

He cannot accept the fact that this could end if the land is privatised, mined and encroached upon and its ecology tampered with. This is what he fears is very likely to happen if the hills are privatised as it happened in other sections of the Aravallis.

The area has been mined for long, affecting its rich biodiversity. The region is known for flora and fauna native to the Aravallis. A census carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India in 2016 in the Aravallis of five Haryana districts revealed hyenas, porcupines, Blue bull antelopes, civet cats and even leopards, amongst other species. In addition, the hills harbour migrant and resident bird life too – around 216 species, according to a bird count by E-Bird website.

Ahead of Mangar Bani, the forests get denser. Wherever the hills haven’t been mined owing to the land being protected as a grove or as village common land, the native vegetation and natural features remain intact.

The Bani is a natural resource that has sustained the traditional lifestyles of Gujjar communities living there for generations. But the sprawling national capital region and its ever-increasing demand for space often takes precedence over the Bani. The Aravalli wilderness is often dismissed as a convenient tradeoff — one whose destruction should be viewed in the context of the larger interest of the country.

“It is because of these hills that Gurugram sustains itself,” Harsana says. “If the city is aware of their importance, only then will the Aravallis survive. And if the Aravallis survive, so will the city.”

Syed Shaz is a freelance videographer and film-maker from Delhi

Published on April 28, 2021

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