March 1, 2019 / 4:36 PM / 7 months ago

India's top court tells Haryana state to protect forest land

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s Supreme Court told local authorities on Friday to abide by court orders protecting land on the outskirts of New Delhi and to cancel a plan to open up ecologically fragile areas for construction.

FILE PHOTO: A woman checks her mobile phone inside the premises of the Supreme Court in New Delhi, India, September 28, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted cities and a new law enacted on Wednesday in the neighboring state of Haryana allowing development activity on 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of protected land has stoked concern among environmentalists.

“Don’t try to overrule the apex court order,” Supreme Court Justice Arun Mishra said in court, referring to previous Supreme Court orders prohibiting any construction within the protected area.

Construction is prohibited in the protected areas around the Aravali and Shivalik mountain ranges, which act as natural barriers against sand and dust storms coming in from the nearby Thar Desert.

But a large portion has already been hollowed out because of rampant mining for rocks and sand for construction.

The state government of Haryana has said that it needs land to build a new city to accommodate more people who come to urban areas in search of jobs.

Environmental experts say Haryana’s plan has the potential to wipe out the last vestige of the green cover that is essential for millions of Delhi residents who are vulnerable to air pollution.

“It’s suicidal,” said Chetan Agarwal, senior fellow at the Center for Ecology, Development and Research. “After all, Haryana has the lowest forest cover of 3.5 percent against India’s average of more than 24 percent.”

Other than ensuring clean air, the protected area is also crucial for ground water recharge and biodiversity, said Anumita Roychowdhury, an executive director at the Center for Science and Environment think-tank.

Both Delhi and Bengaluru, India’s software capital, will run out of groundwater by 2020, a think-tank chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a report in 2018.

Reporting by Suchitra Mohanty and Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Frances Kerry

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