- For generations, a community outside India’s capital has worked to protect their sacred grove from outside interests like mining and real estate.
- Despite being a biodiversity hotspot, the protection status of this grove under India’s Forest Conservation Act remains in limbo.
- But conservationists and experts say they hope new archaeological findings will help the community get more secure legal protection for their grove.
DELHI NCR — Sunil Harsana says he always knew there were paintings in the caves near his home in Mangar, a village on the outskirts of India’s capital, New Delhi. When he was younger, he would climb up to the caves to get some relief from the sweltering heat while his herd grazed. At the time, he didn’t know that the paintings may have prehistoric origins.
It’s only now, in 2021, that the archaeology department of Haryana state, where the village is located, has identified the paintings as possibly originating from the Palaeolithic period. It may even be one of the largest Paleolithic sites in India, the department’s deputy director told the Indian Express newspaper. And now there’s talk from the Haryana state government to protect Mangar’s forests under the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act.
For Harsana, this recent “discovery” is yet another reminder of the need for documentation of his home region, and of how documentation efforts can contribute to increased protection of a forest that has held cultural significance for his community for generations.
Mangar lies in the Aravalli mountain range, a geological mass older than the Himalayas, stretching 700 kilometers (435 miles) in the center of India. The village is surrounded by three massive cities — New Delhi, Gurugram and Faridabad — and is home to a community of ethnic Gujjars, a historically pastoral people. Though it’s hard to find historical records showing when the Gujjars arrived in Mangar, traditions passed down from one generation to the next suggest the community migrated there hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.
In the past, most of the community in Mangar depended on their livestock to survive, Harsana says. So they developed a forest management system to ensure they wouldn’t deplete their resources, and would always have enough feed for their animals.
At the heart of this management system was Mangar Bani, a sacred grove extending over 274 hectares (677 acres) near Mangar village. To this day, stories of Gudariya Das Baba, a saint who protects the forest, continue to be passed down.
“Hunting and tree-cutting in this place have been banned, and the story is that anyone who does these activities in the forest, harm comes to that person through supernatural powers,” Harsana tells Mongabay in Hindi. “For example, there are stories that someone made a house by cutting down wood from the forest. Their house caught fire. Someone cut feed for their animals, and their animals went crazy. So there are myths and stories like these that preserve this area.”
The traditions also had provisions for difficult times, Harsana adds. During droughts, the community would be allowed to collect feed from the sacred grove only after asking for permission from Gudariya Baba. And even then, they couldn’t cut trees within the grove. They could shake branches and take whatever leaves fell to the ground for their animals.
“Normally, this is a tradition, but if you look at it from a scientific perspective, it’s also a management system,” Harsana says.
Because of these community practices over generations, Mangar Bani is considered one of the last undisturbed forests in the National Capital Region, the Croatia-sized area that encircles New Delhi. The grove and the forests around Mangar Bani are home to 219 known bird species, around a dozen mammals like hyenas and leopards, and some of the largest distributions of native Aravalli plant species.
Chetan Agarwal, an independent environment analyst and senior fellow at the Centre for Ecology, Development and Research (CEDAR), has been following Mangar’s case since 2008. In recent years, Agarwal and Harsana have contributed to wildlife studies of tracts of forest in the Aravallis, which include Mangar and its surroundings. Their study on the National Capital Region’s Aravalli wildlife corridor covered around 20,000 hectares (nearly 50,000 acres).
One of their most recent studies found that there is more biodiversity in unprotected parts of the Aravallis than in the nearby Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. Agarwal says the community’s role in the preservation of this remnant forest has been critical.
“If you look outside the Mangar Bani and you step out, and the boundaries are a bit fuzzy, but as you move away, the rest of the hills are in various stages of degradation,” Agarwal says. “There are patches of good forest that are remote and all, but otherwise there’s been degradation, there’s been mining, there’s lopping for fuelwood and fodder.”
In March 2021, the Haryana state government approached India’s Supreme Court seeking permission to restart mining in the Aravallis. The Supreme Court had banned mining — such as for sand and stone — in 2002 after it found “large-scale mining without Approved Plans” were degrading the range.
But illegal mining has continued. Since 1967-68, 25% of the Aravallis in the neighboring state of Rajasthan were lost to illegal mining, according to a report submitted by the Central Empowered Committee to the Supreme Court in 2018.
Besides deforestation from mining, changing ownership of the land in Mangar has put the sacred grove at further risk of being deforested. Over decades, the area was split up and sold to private interests. Conservationists say the only thing stopping these private owners from clearing trees and building on land in Mangar is a notification from the Haryana government in 2016 that places Mangar Bani and a 500-meter (1,640-foot) buffer area around it in a “no-construction zone.”
In the same year, the Hindustan Times newspaper reported that the then-conservator of forests for the city of Gurugram, which neighbors Mangar, said the change of ownership of forest land was illegal, and that it should be returned to the community.
“The reason [Mangar Bani] exists is because the people looked after it,” says Ghazala Shahabuddin, also a senior fellow at CEDAR who has worked on studies of Mangar’s ecology with Agarwal and Harsana. “Because if you look at the rest of the area, no other area has this kind of vegetation and it’s there only because of people’s protection because of religious reasons.”
Despite all of this biodiversity and ecological significance, there remains a question of whether Mangar Bani is legally considered a forest.
In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled that under Indian law, any patch of land that can meet the “dictionary definition” of a forest falls under the protection of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980. This act prevents any forest land from being used for a “non-forest purpose” without prior approval from the government.
For Mangar Bani, though, protection under the FCA hasn’t been implemented.
“This is kind of a fuzzy area,” Agarwal says. “The government has notified the Mangar Bani as a ‘no-construction zone’ and so in government records, it is recorded as Mangar Bani [bani means forest] in the notification. So you can say that it is a forest now, but the Forest Department hasn’t clearly identified it as a deemed forest.”
Conservationists say they’re concerned that if Mangar Bani remains in this legal gray zone, it could make it hard to protect this biodiversity hotspot. And that could have consequences for the larger Aravalli ecosystem.
“[Mangar Bani] is just not [ecologically] viable on its own, it’s not going to be viable even as a forest in the long term,” Shahabuddin says in a phone call. “Because, you know, many of these species that are found — they’re not just mammals and birds, but also trees. They have very small populations there and they are not viable unless you preserve the entire system.”
She adds, “It’s important for a forest patch to be of a certain size, so that species can regenerate.”
Shahabuddin also says the preservation of the area should involve the community that has made it possible for this place to survive for hundreds of years.
“If we have classification like a community reserve, or if we have a biodiversity heritage site, it will be just much more feasible, because then a community will be part of the management committee that looks after the protected area,” she says.
Even without government protection, Harsana continues to work with his community to preserve the grove. Since 2015, he’s been leading children in the Mangar Eco Club on walks to understand their forest. Before the pandemic, the club would plant native species and clean up trash. They also built check dams using stones to prevent soil erosion during heavy rainfall. Holding back the soil also prevents seeds from getting washed away and trees from getting uprooted, which keeps the forest growing.
“These things that these kids are doing, these were also practiced traditionally,” Harsana says. “The main purpose of running the eco club here and doing these activities with kids is that even though this gully plugging [check dams] may not bring big change, the kids who have made these dams see the benefits when they come back. And maybe later in their life, they’ll consider doing these things.”
These days, when Harsana isn’t helping the archaeological department, answering questions from journalists, and leading walks through Mangar Bani, he’s continuing his work of documenting the ecology of the Aravallis. Now, he’s studying the regeneration of native plant species in the region, which should be completed by December. He’s visited around 20 villages in the Aravallis with the aim of identifying where forests are regenerating, or where there is potential for restoration.
“[Harsana has] found some really amazing places where he’s found rare species regenerating that we thought had gone forever, but they’re still there,” Shahabuddin says.
Documentation is at the heart of Harsana’s efforts to conserve the forest. He’s seen how documentation can lead to improved recognition and protection for areas under threat from activities like mining and construction. It’s also helped change narratives about the value of the Aravallis, he says.
Harsana recalls politicians openly speaking about starting mining initiatives years ago, but says now they’re much more discreet and won’t mention mining publicly.
“In 2003, I remember newspaper headlines saying ‘Mining ban in Aravallis, 1.5 million peoples’ livelihoods in danger,’” he says. “Today, it’s a little like if a newspaper writes in favor of mining, even then they’ll try to be a little balanced and give the environment some importance too. So these things overall in society are changing.”
He acknowledges that change is slow, but he keeps documenting and sharing his findings. Because something that might at first seem small — like cave paintings that he’s known about since childhood — may help tip the balance in favor of Mangar Bani’s protection.
Sanshey Biswas is a journalist who started his career in print and has since been working on podcasts and videos. His work has appeared in Vice, GroundTruth Project, AJ Contrast, Outlook Magazine, Hindu BusinessLine, Hindustan Times and others.
Manon Verchot is a multimedia journalist. She’s led video efforts at publications like Mongabay and Hindustan Times. Her work has been carried in publications like GroundTruth Project, Scientific American, The Guardian, TRT World, The Quint and more.
Banner image: Sunil Harsana looks up at the forest. Image courtesy of Sanshey Biswas and Manon Verchot.