September 2013
#Gurgaon , 110 Views
The Mangar Games

Byline: Gayathri Sreedharan

A small band of activists is doing everything it can to stop Gurgaon’s sprawl from destroying a forest of great environmental and spiritual importance.

Once upon time, centuries ago, there lived a holy man named Gudariya Baba. Outside a little village called Mangar, near a dense, 500-acre forest in one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, the saint made his home in a cave, and became the forest’s protector and defender, roaming the hills at night to frighten away trespassers, even, it is said, long after his death.

Located 15 kilometres from Gurgaon’s Sohna Road, Mangar village is still a sleepy little place. On any given day, there is a handful of people working the nearby fields, a few men laid out on charpoys, playing cards and smoking beedis, all of them outnumbered by roaming peacocks and peahens. The children of Mangar still gather on Sunday afternoons to listen to the elders’ tales about Gudariya Baba’s powers, and recently, I was there to listen to a few of them myself.

In what one storyteller described as a “reallife incident” from centuries ago, a caravan stopped to spend the night at Mangar. The villagers warned the travellers not to let their camels feed on the leaves from the forest’s dhau trees, or else the spirit of Gudariya Baba would punish them. The warning went unheeded, and in the morning, the camels were dead.

Being allowed to listen in on local folklore was interesting, but it wasn’t much of a scoop; it’s not like I was being let in on any secret local customs. I’d soon discover the legend of Gudariya Baba is repeated to anyone who cares to listen, and in the past months, there has been an increasing number of visitors to regale.

What’s got everyone from naturalists, state officials, prospective landowners and reporters rolling into town has nothing to do with the spiritual protector of the forest, but the Manger Draft Development Plan of 2031. Prepared by the Town Planning Department of the Haryana government and floated in early 2012, the plan authorises real-estate activities across 25,763 acres and 23 villages, redesignating forest land from agricultural to commercial and residential. All buyers will need to do is mark out a desired acreage and apply for a Change in Land Use (CLU) certification from the Haryana government.

Painted across a small water tank on the road to the bani, signs like t

Unspoiled, thinly populated and with its beautiful views of the Aravallis, Mangar seems the ideal target for the next posh suburb to spill out of Gurgaon, complete with entertainment parks and apartment complexes.

One such proposal is the 50-room LaLit Traveller Mangar Faridabad, to be built by the Kalakar Trust, run by artist Sterre Sharma, wife of the financially controversial Captain Satish Sharma, a former Union minister. At the office of the local patwari—the government appointed village accountant—43 kilometres from Gurgaon in Ballabgarh, records have it that some corporate entities have bought land in Mangar village, and even inside the bani, the forestThe clerk there said that two of the buyers are Gurgaon’s residential property giants, M3M India and Ireo.

Gudariya Baba has yet to intervene, but none of this has escaped the attention of citizens and environmental activists in Gurgaon and beyond. One of the people behind recent campaigns is Chetan Agarwal, an independent researcher who often consults with the Central and state governments on environmental matters, and now spearheads Mission Development Gurgaon, a coalition of concerned Gurgaon citizens. As a longtime resident of Sohna Road, Agarwal says he’s witnessed the degradation of Gurgaon’s vicinity for several years now. His mild manner, uncertain handshake and almost hesitant approach to any discussion belie the disciplined, dogged manner in which he has been working to save Mangar from a fate similar to Damdama Lake, an endangered water body 23 kilometres south of Gurgaon. A shallow, rainfed lake given over to adventure sports, Damdama faces almost certain depredation now that an adjoining hillock, the 5,750-acre Roj ka Gujjar, has been parcelled off to private buyers, whose buildings obstruct the flow of rainwater into the lake.

At a recent talk on the Mangar Development Plan, Agarwal explained, “As the rainwater flows down … the fractures and fissures in the surface of the Aravallis help the water permeate to ground level faster.” Mangar, nestled in a valley environmentalists as well as the Central Groundwater Board call an ‘essential water recharge zone’, not only serves the needs of water-guzzling Gurgaon, but of Faridabad and Delhi as well; if another water recharge zone were to disappear, the National Capital Region could face a severe water crisis. “The desertification [of Gurgaon and Haryana] is reaching closer and closer,” said Agarwal.

At the same talk, addressed by Agarwal and others including Pradip Krishen, documentary filmmaker and author of Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide [2006], was the secretary to the Mangar Village Development Committee, Sunil Kumar Harsana. Stick-thin, dressed unremarkably, and with a limp, Harsana spoke passionately about the significance of the Mangar Bani, Gudariya Baba’s legacy, and the religiocultural heritage that is endangered as much as the forest.

In Baba Darayam (Left), activist Chetan Agarwal has found an unlikely supporter in his efforts to save Mangar.

Harsana’s meeting in March 2012 with then Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh came to nothing. But he is still campaigning to have all the lands around Mangar village acquired by the government, including the surrounding hills, atop which buyers like the Kalakar Trust have already grabbed. “We can see it… People are already starting to get their CLU permissions,” said Harsana, “and we’re worried that these other groups like M3M will get their CLUs and start building, too. We want the Central government to declare this zone a national park, so that nobody can misuse it.”

For what it’s worth, the Ministry of Environment and Forests did send a letter to the Haryana government, dated November 22, 2012, asking that the Mangar Development Plan 2031 be put on hold until the forests of Mangar are mapped, and be accordingly protected from commercial development. The government is yet to respond.

It’s unlikely that anyone could have seen this coming in 1970, when the Haryana government, formed only four years previous, permitted villagers to ‘privatise’ communal lands and sell their allotted plots at will. Harsana, who owns a few cars that are used as local taxis, was very young when his father decided to sell their his acreage to a businessman from Delhi. “He had some commitments to fulfil, money issues I think,” said Harsana, who came off as morose when he described the circumstances under which he grew up. “There was nothing here; no security, no hospital, no access or roads. Even Gurgaon was a barren space then.”

Although a businessman in his own right and a figure of note in Mangar village, Harsana lives in a small, three-room house, just like everyone else. The sight of high-ranking officials or wealthy businessmen rich enough to buy and sell plots of land that once belonged to the villagers, sitting comfortably in their SUVs as they cruise through town, rankles a little. “For months, I couldn’t get the permission to build a little school for the village,” Harsana told me. “Whereas people from outside the village, with their big cars and lots of money come here once, maybe twice, and they get whatever they need. There’s nothing for us who belong to Mangar.”

Back at the patwari’s office in Ballabgarh, the clerks say it’s not uncommon to register sizeable land sales in the Aravallis in the name of a relative, a driver, a poor cousin, etc, in order to escape the taxman. The general belief, something that is supported by the clerks at the patwari’s office, is that there are scores of these benami investors in Mangar and other villages, including judges, income tax officers and officials from both the Haryana and Delhi governments. “There are some very high-ranking officials invested here,” one of the clerks told me. “It’s the practice that they invest in a relative or a company’s name, but in time, locals get to see who the real buyers are.”

Baba Darayam and Mangar-based activist Sunil Harsana (right) look for what was once the Harsana family acreage on a map of Mangar.

In the village, those who have benefited most visibly are the property dealers, people like Baba Dayaram, a former farmer whose estate has tripled in the past six years he’s spent brokering. In the driveway to Dayaram’s house, where he meets visitors and prospective buyers and sellers, his name is engraved in a pillar of Italian marble, while his three cars—two of them respect-grabbing SUVs—have big decalletters that spell ‘Baba’ on the back windows.

He tempers his exhibitionism with a kind of humility, speaking of being thankful for his riches while he also talking about ordering a peacock for his lawns and horses for his stables. Dayaram claims he’s committed to never selling land located in the sacred grove, expresses concern about the damage big players like M3M could do to the local ecosystem, but he’s not exactly enthusiastic about the bani’s future, which he feels “can’t be saved now.”

For every plot of land he helps to sell or buy, Dayaram says his commission comes to a few lakhs of rupees; perhaps marginal compared to the crores spent on a few acres of prime land here, but a fantastical sum to the citizens of Mangar. “People keep coming and leaving this place,” said Dayaram. “They invest in a piece of land that’s been pointed out to them on a map. After a few years, when their money has doubled, they come to me saying, ‘Baba, have it sold.’ Then someone else buys the same land for a higher price.”

I met some of Mangar’s other property dealers one afternoon, as they played cards by the Gurgaon-Faridabad highway opposite the entrance to Mangar. I asked them what it would take to purchase land either along the highway, or inside Mangar village. Within seconds of my first question, I was surrounded by five men, all dressed in white shirts and trousers or dhotis, all with tobacco-stained teeth. They spoke over each other, pressing me for information, quizzing me about my origins and my requirements. They took down my mobile number, calling back immediately to check that they’d got it right, or perhaps to check that I hadn’t given them a fake one.

According to these dealers, the land here is pirced between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 4 crore an acre, depending on its proximity to the highway. Though if all goes ahead with the LaLit Traveller and similar developments, a paved road is to be constructed right up to Mangar bani, and “land prices adjacent to the new road will shoot up, too,” said one of the dealers. “You’d better buy it now, when it’s cheaper.”

Some of Mangar’s villagers at the construction site of the local school, a project that Harsana alleges was denied to him, and granted to outside investors.

For the crusaders out to save Mangar, sympathy can be found in civil servant Ashok Khemka, director of the Haryana Seeds Development Corporation, who, until recently, was Haryana’s Director General, Consolidation of Land Holdings.

Khemka’s last job as director general was to investigate Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra, whose private limited company, Sky Light Hospitality, was alleged to have bought 3.5 acres of land near Manesar, Gurgaon, for Rs 7.5 crore in 2008, and sold it to Gurgaon’s first property giant, DLF, for Rs 58 crore barely four months later. On October 8, 2012, three days after Khemka ordered a probe into what he suspected was an undervalued land deal with under-the-table benefits, he was transferred; but not before he cancelled the handover of the Manesar property from Sky Light to DLF.

The Vadra-DLF scandal may have been of a much higher profile, but Khemka had also investigated the consolidation of land holdings in two other areas near Gurgaon: Kot and Anangpur, in Faridabad district, and Roj ka Gujjar, of Damdama Lake fame. Like the clerks at the patwari’s office in Ballabgarh, Khemka believes there are high-ranking officials of the Haryana government, as well as the Delhi and Central governments, who have invested in places like Mangar to profit from the construction of future tourism zones, residential areas and entertainment parks.

“Under the garb of consolidating land holdings, the government will partition them,” said Khemka. “All I would recommend is, do it in a court of law, let the partition be neatly done, let every stakeholder be known openly,” but, as long as decision-makers are themselves stakeholders, “that’s not going to happen.”

However bleak the outlook, however absent Gudariya Baba has been from the whole sordid thing, Mangar does have some tangible patrons in people like Harsana, Agarwal and the people at Mission Development Gurgaon. Perhaps their success or failure to protect the region will be judged, in generations to come, by inclusion or absence their names in the stories told to Mangar’s children.