When picturing the Aravali Hills of northern India, images conjured include a lush range with still lakes, unique local architecture and even leopards. Amongst picturesque scenes, however, there are also searing images of hillsides marked by desertification. Mining and quarrying have transformed this region’s landscape.
In recent years, India’s Supreme Court has stepped in to protect the hills. First in 2002, they banned quarrying within a 10-mile-long area about 40 miles from New Delhi. Second, just last year in 2018, the Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) released a report detailing the current condition of the Aravalis.
A model of unchecked, unsustainable development
The Committee found that 31 of the 128 hills located in the Aravali range have disappeared due to illegal quarrying over the last 50 years.
Shocked by the results of the survey, the Supreme Court ordered the state government of Rajasthan to stop illegal mining in the range within 48 hours. The state has claimed that it has issued notices ordering companies to appear in court in addition to registering illegal mines.
Even with repeated Supreme Court intervention, however, the hills remain in danger.
“Illegal mining continues despite the Supreme Court ruling. Trees are being felled indiscriminately. The wildlife is being killed to capture the forest. Mountains are being broken. Scanty rainfall has further aggravated the danger of desertification of Delhi,” Jitendra Bhadana, founder of the volunteer group, Save Aravali, tells News18.
“No Aravali, no Vote” is the chant of people protesting the passing of a new bill in Rajasthan’s neighbor state Haryana that opens 33 percent of forested area to development and mining. The Supreme Court, again, stepped in on the Aravalis’ behalf with a stay order on the bill’s implementation.
Developers claim that their motives are pure. They say the resources of the Aravalis should be used for the good of the people.
“If they are not being used to house people, what is the use of mountains?" Girdhari Singh, the owner of the Creative Projects & Contracts construction company, asks the German news service Deutsche Welle.
Do living hills in India offer value for citizens?
It can be hard to see the value of the Aravali Hills when they can’t speak for themselves.
Especially being so close to New Delhi, the capital of India, the Aravalis provide ecosystem services — above and beyond its rocks and minerals — that are vital to residents. To answer Mr. Singh’s question, there are three services that are most endangered by mining activities: offsetting pollution, preventing desertification and providing clean water.
Not only do mining activities release harmful particulate matter into the atmosphere but deforesting vast areas of greenery exacerbates the pollution problem in urban areas.
"In terms of air quality, the National Capital Region, especially the Gurgaon-Delhi belt are currently the worst polluted areas in the world," Chetan Agarwal, a senior fellow at the Centre for Ecology in New Delhi who researches the range, tells Deutsche Welle.
Agarwal adds that the Aravalis "basically act as green lungs and help reduce the air pollution."
The Aravali Hills, whose name means “wall of stone or rocks,” also provide protection from winds that would worsen desertification in the urban regions beyond the mountains. Winds have increasingly surged toward India’s National Capital Region because the mountains no longer shield the plateau - and those winds contain sand and dust that can harm human health, according to Business Insider.
The hills also replenish groundwater for towns in the plains. Mining threatens the purity of that water and alters microclimates so that the Aravalis now receive less rain than they used to.
This is not to mention the ecosystems and flora and fauna that are displaced, harmed and killed by mining activities.
Protesters demand environmental protection
The situation in the Aravalis is one of business interests overpowering the interests of the people.
The state governments have been acting more on behalf of commercial interests than the needs of citizens, despite the risks these activities pose toward cities and people.
Rajasthan state, for example, is receiving a royalty of Rs 5000 crore (the equivalent of approximately US$720,000,000) from mining companies, according to the Times of India.
Protesters are demanding that the laws of the states protect the natural areas they rely on for clean water and air.
In cases like this, developers and miners are unable to see the external costs of their activities, and how these externalities even affect their very own businesses and individual wellbeing.
The question must be asked. Will quarrying and developing be booming industries in cities that have become toxic to their people?
The government has to add the proper checks and balances for everyone involved to succeed. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has been able to step in time and again to act on behalf of citizens.
And the grassroots efforts of protesters and groups like Save Aravali have had an awakening effect. The recently formed Jannayak Janta Party has included environmental degradation, including protecting the Aravalis, into its agenda. This was a first for India.
Image credit: Nataraja/Wiki Commons
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.