Life in Gurgaon

Meet the Haryana farmer fighting to protect Aravalli forests since 1989

Source: Hindustan Times

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A news in a vernacular paper on an October morning in 2017 left 72-year-old Ram Avtar Yadav, former sarpanch of Manesar panchayat, furious. The news was about the panchayat agreeing to lease out 65 acres of land for construction of a toll plaza that is proposed to be shifted from its present location in Kherki Daula to Sehrawan.

Yadav, a farmer, went straight to the panchayat and questioned its members about the issue. Some fellow villagers also accompanied him. The panchayat members nodded in agreement that they had agreed to lease out a part of the land as they had received a letter from the deputy commissioner’s office. After a protest by villagers, the panchayat passed a resolution to not hand over the land for the toll plaza.

“Our only concern is that thousands of trees would be wiped out from the said land. There is a thick forest there that sustains wildlife. Constructing a toll plaza here will be disastrous,” said Yadav, who has been a leader of the farmers’ union.

In February this year, for the first time in his life, Yadav filed multiple RTIs to various state departments, including revenue, forest, panchayat, the DC Office and even to the Ministry of forest and environment, to get information about the status of land and the forest on it. A novice on the path of RTI, Yadav takes help from one his friend to frame the documents on computer. “I speak and he types and this way it works out. He (the friend) often files RTIs on my behalf,” he said.

“I did not get a reply from anywhere except the forest department. Its reply stated that lakhs of trees are on the land. I took to the RTI route for first time with purpose of saving the forest,” Yadav said.

On the basis of RTI reply, Yadav moved a petition in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in April this year. The NGT will hear the matter on July 24 raising hope among villagers that their forest does stand a chance against the bulldozers.

The development has put brakes on the transfer of land to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) for shifting the toll. Now, the land can only be transferred after the NGT gives its decision in the case.

Despite having no political affiliation, Yadav contested the 1992 election to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly. “I did not get much votes. In fact, I do not know how to get votes,” said Yadav who was finally elected as the head of Manesar panchayat from 2000 to 2005.

Since then Yadav has been taking up issues that affect people and the village. Fighting for the forest, the farmers and rights of the village has become a second nature for Yadav, who got involved with various social movements after completing his graduation in 1972.

In March this year, Yadav challenged the authorities after he came to know that a police lines was constructed by clearing thick forest in 2013.

“I had gone to buy a cow from Badgurjar village, about 12km from my village in July 2017. There I saw that the Police Lines has come up in a place which was once a thick forest. I asked villagers about the development. They told me to leave the issue and not make a fuss about everything,” Yadav said.

But true to his nature, Yadav filed an RTI asking if permission was sought to clear the forest for the police lines project. The RTI reply stated that a clearance was neither sought nor given.

“It was 57 acres of panchayat land and thousands of trees were cleared without coming into the notice of the forest department. This is strange. I will fight for this, too,” said Yadav, a grandfather of two boys whom he inspires to fight for Mother Nature.

Yadav is best known in his and surrounding villages for taking on the Om Prakash Chautala government in a big way in 1989 by leading a social movement called ‘Disney Land Virodhi Morcha’ to save 28,900 acres of Aravalli forest land in Sohna, where a Disney Land was proposed to be set up.

The then state government had imposed land acquisition notice, but massive movement by 5,000 farmers forced them to withdraw the notice in February 1990. “We had approached the then Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who assured of scrapping the land acquisition notice,” Yadav said reminiscing.

“I never formed an NGO, trust or any forum to carry out my fight. It was a call from my inner soul to protect the Aravalli forest. I still remember Gurugram saw a big flood in 1972 and till late 1980s there used to be heavy rains. Average rainfall of the district used to be in the range of 615mm to 700mm. Now, we have not witnessed more than 400mm rain,” Yadav said.

Former head of the Garhi Murli panchayat Raja Ram said, “Ram Avtar is an icon of mass movements. He has been working for social causes selflessly for the past 40 years and spends money from his own pocket. His only mission is to save forest land and we all have respect for his mission.”

At present, Yadav’s only mission is to force the government to scrap the plan of shifting the Kherki Daula toll plaza at the cost of flattening a forest. “We can go to any extent to save our lifeline, the Aravalis,” he said.