The Delhi High Court on Friday said the forest department must take all steps to protect the Ridge as it pulled up the authorities here for failing to notify its land as “reserved forest” in spite of earlier directions.
Emphasising that the forest department is its custodian, Justice Jasmeet Singh expressed concern over only 96 hectares of the more than 7,000 hectares of the Ridge land being notified as “reserved forest”.
The judge said an affidavit filed by the Delhi government is “totally unsatisfactory” as it is silent on the time-frame within which the entire Ridge area would be notified and made encroachment-free.
“The court gets an impression that the respondent is not keen on protecting the Ridge land. This court is pained to note that the Ridge is part of the Aravalli range and every step must be taken within the jurisdiction and power of the department of forest to protect the Ridge land,” the court said.
“Orders passed by the Supreme Court and the NGT (National Green Tribunal) are requiring the respondents to perform its statutory duties and protect the Ridge land, but the same is not happening,” it added.
Considered the lungs of the national capital, the Ridge is an extension of the Aravalli hill range in Delhi and is a rocky, hilly and forested area. It has been divided into four zones — south, south-central, central and north — due to administrative reasons. The four zones make up a total area of around 7,784 hectares.
Advocates Gautam Narayan and Aditya N Prasad, the amici curiae (friends of court) appointed by the high court in the matter concerning the preservation of the Ridge, said in spite of judicial orders, the authorities have just been “dragging their feet” for more than two years when it was imperative to notify the Ridge land as “reserved forest” to protect it from non-forest activities.
The judge asked the Delhi government counsel if there is “any problem” in notifying the Ridge land as forest.
He also expressed his displeasure over the “wording” used in the government’s response to the issue and said he would have to initiate contempt proceedings against the official concerned in the face of non-compliance of court orders.
“We do not want a city devoid of forests. We do no want that the next generation does not know what a forest it. Do your duty you owe to the citizens of Delhi. Why are you saying ‘will be done’? I am extremely unhappy with the wording,” the judge said.
The affidavit, he said, left an impression that the authorities are “trying to dodge the real issue”.
The court also asked why only around one hectare of the Ridge land was made encroachment-free since May.
The Delhi government counsel requested the court to grant him two weeks to file a better affidavit and also ensure that a “substantial area” of the Ridge is notified as “reserved forest” in the meantime.
“For 50 per cent (of the Ridge land), a notification should be out,” the court told the counsel and listed the matter for further hearing in January.
The government lawyer also assured the court that the authorities shall put in extra efforts and employ people to ensure that not a metre of the Ridge land is encroached.
The court also made the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Land and Development Office (L&DO) parties to the proceedings.
On November 8, the court directed the Delhi chief secretary to declare the un-encroached Ridge area in the capital as “reserved forest” within two weeks or face contempt action for non-compliance.
It had said the official was liable for contempt of court for not following a 2021 NGT order directing the Delhi government through the chief secretary to ensure that the requisite notification under section 20 (notification declaring forest reserved) of the Indian Forest Act is issued in three months in relation to land having “no controversy”.