Activist Sunil Harsana on a mission to preserve NCR’s last greenspace

sky none of stars

By Kusumika Das

The Delhi NCT urban area is known for its historical landmarks and sky-high edifices. The state also has the lesser-known Aravalli hills, which are the last remaining green lungs of Delhi. The range encompasses the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Delhi, and extends across a huge area. This ecologically fragile area, like any other, has been subjected to degradation and destruction.

Several conservationists’ names have surfaced in the campaign to safeguard the Aravalli hills. Changes have been proposed, petitions have been lodged, and campaigns have been led. Mangar Bani, a small village on the Delhi-Haryana border, is one such example. Despite the fact that urbanisation has engulfed the entire region of Delhi NCT, some people still want to protect their homelands. Sunil Harsana, an on-the-ground conservationist, is one of them, attempting to save Mangar’s virgin forest before it is irreversibly harmed.

Sunil Harsana, 33, is a Mangar Village native who grew up in the shadow of the Bani hills and forests. He says,  “I don’t know the answer to how I am working as a conservationist but there are a few things about me such as the village I was born in was covered with forest and from the community I belong to a traditionally forest-dependent community. I belong to north India’s Gujjar, the people used to come here with cattle. It is said that in the Mughal period when there was a new caste act then these people used to live in the forest only. These kinds of  traditional stories that I heard from elders used to attract me and from there my love for forests grew.”

Polio left one of his legs paralysed at a young age; today, he uses a solid, locally sourced wooden staff as a walking aid. However, this has never held him back. In fact, despite his physical limitations, he frequently outran his companions on long excursions across the Aravallis’ extremely tough and uneven terrain, deftly hopping from one rock to the next.

After completing his graduation in Journalism and Mass Communication from Haryana University he started working with an  NGO named Vision of India. But that NGO did not work for the environment. Their motto was to make school dropouts independent. Later on, he started his own NGO named Village development Committee.  

There were some old customs that the villagers used to cut forest through auction. In the year 2010, Harsana started protesting against this heinous act of cutting wood. In 2011, his committee, the Village Development Committee, lodged a complaint against this and finally in the year 2012, The National Green Tribunal in Haryana declared the cutting of woods at Mangar Bani as illegal.   

Harsana’s efforts to raise awareness about the Aravallis include public engagement platforms on social media, initiation of youth from his Gujjar community who assist him in basic conservation activities like repairing check dams and planting native trees, and engagement with urbanites who come here for birding tours. 

Mangar Bani Check Dam

He formed the Mangar Eco Club in 2015 to raise awareness of the forest and all it has to offer to local and urban children. It has around 30-35 members, mostly children between the age group of 12-15. Even though they find it difficult to participate on school days, they love to assist Sunil with outreach programs during holidays. Over 245 species of birds, 20 species of mammals, and around 300 species of trees have been recorded here. “We arrange bird tours for the children. Understanding and building good habits is easier in children as they are connected to fewer things. I am sure that the children’s love for these forests will translate into a desire to protect them in the future.” adds Sunil. 

The work of Sunil goes far beyond nature walks. Sunil understands that the safety provided by local beliefs is not always complete. He has been working for Mangar to be designated as a forest since 2010. He recognises the importance of his biodiversity documenting effort in achieving this goal and hopes that showcasing the forest’s splendours would persuade the government to declare it a protected area. Harsana further adds, “ Whatever I am doing today, I do for my peace of mind so I don’t regret thinking I could have done this and that later. But if people appreciate my work then I get motivated.”  

The region was designated as a no-construction zone in 2016, which has helped, although the Aravalli Hills surrounding Mangar Bani continue to be plagued by land encroachment for construction activities. 

To bring attention to the plight of this forgotten wilderness, Sunil works with several stakeholders, including locals in and around Mangar Bani, citizen groups, activists, and journalists.  Sunil said confidently, “Our next target is to give Mangar Bani the recognition of forest. We are fighting for it.” 

Despite fighting for the environment for more than 12 years, Sunil has not received any appreciation from the government.  “Why will they give me an award? I am working against the government.  There is always a conflict with the government because we all know that the government is controlled by the corporate houses and corporate houses want construction. The government always tries to fulfill their interest. So stopping the encroachment of lands is against their agenda.”, Sunil adds. 

Sunil thinks his biggest challenge is that he cannot change the environmental laws or the policies. “Despite existing forest conservation policies, they aren’t properly implemented. Sometimes the government  amends them for their own benefits and I am a silent watcher  of that.”  Besides, his incapability to make people believe that protecting forests is much more important than doing industrialization haunts him every day.  “I could not make them believe that environment and development are not contradictory to each other; rather  they work hand in hand.”