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A sacred forest struggles for survival in Delhi’s backyard
PAWANPREET KAUR  10th Jun 2012

A still from the documentary, The Lost Forest

ust off the bustling Faridabad-Gurgaon highway, lies a quaint little village yet untouched by the blighting arms of development. This village, Manger, is nestled in a vast expanse of uninterrupted green that has for generations been venerated and conserved by its village folk as a sacred grove blessed by the local deity. The villagers themselves don't allow logging in the forest, making it one of the last surviving woods in the Aravalli foothill.

For the last two decades, however, this forest has been in danger of becoming the proverbial beehive of real estate activity, which is threatening its very existence. A new documentary titled The Lost Forest critically examines the recent man-nature conflict in Mangerbani (the forest of Manger) and the possible repercussion of the onslaught of development on this grove. The film, which was screened at the India Habitat Centre on World Environment Day (5 June), attempts to initiate a dialogue on the issue and to contemplate further action to save this ancient reservoir of natural history.

Director Ishani Dutta, who has worked extensively on the natural resources of Haryana, explains how till the 1970s, the forest was under community ownership of the Panchayat. "But for some mysterious reasons, the entire forest got privatised between 1970 and 1985. The villagers were persuaded to sell off their shares and as of today, the forest land is available for re-sale to the highest bidder," she says.

The filmmaker feels the grove is too close for comfort to the fast growing neighborhood of Delhi, Gurgaon and Faridabad. "Hard-pressed for space, these neighbourhoods are devouring the remaining green zones to fulfill their urban ambitions. For these real estate developers and corporates, there is big money to be made here," she adds.

The film explains how the land's commercial value was too much to ignore even for the state government. "Haryana government went against the Union government directives, which clarified that non-agricultural land cannot be transformed into agricultural land without clearance. Things were done arbitrarily, which is why there are many grey areas in the matter," says environmental activist Chetan Agarwal.

If Mangerbani dies, the entire ecosystem of the area will die, and with it a tradition of conservation that has been kept alive for centuries — Ishani Dutta, director

Author Pradip Krishen concurs and adds that it's important to protect this bio-reserve because Mangerbani's ecosystem is fragile, yet unique. "Here, one can find vegetation that is capable of surviving the harsh and dry climate conditions of the region," he says. "The forest is home to dhau, a habitat specialist tree that grows on steep rocks. No tree species can grow in such an inhospitable environment and if dhau is destroyed, these hills will become barren."

Not only this, Mangerbani is also regarded as the last unfragmented habitat for wild-life in this area. Sightings of leopards, striped hyenas, wild hare, porcupines, partridges, nilgai, jackal, mongooses and rare birds like the large-billed leaf warbler, have been reported in the region.

"If the Bani dies, the entire ecosystem will die, and with it a tradition of conservation that has been kept alive for thousands of years," says Dutta. "Not only will these unique trees and rare animals lose their last shelter, neighbouring habitats will lose their source of fresh air and clean water. It already seems like a lost forest; a forest that isn't there."

Sunil, a resident of the village, puts quiet succinctly when he says, "Construction can happen anywhere, but where will we find another sacred grove conserved by tradition and faith for centuries. Where will they find another Mangarbani?"

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