How a citizen’s initiative turned a mining site in Gurgaon into an urban forest — the Aravalli Biodiversity Park

“A forest is a dynamic system, it’s in a constant state of evolution; constantly interacting with its elements, ever changing. It has many layers — you have trees, shrubs, climbers, epiphytes, grasses, fungi, etc, and then there are interactions with other forms of life such as microbes, worms, insects, birds, animals that bring them alive,” says rewilder and eco-restoration practitioner Vijay Dhasmana.

“Planting a cluster of trees does not make a forest. These days, people promote the idea of ​​a Miyawaki forest, planting trees in a one meter grid, but those are not the kind of forests we find in our country,” he adds. Dhasmana talks about British geographer and forester HG Champion and his assistant SK Seth and their work, ‘A revised survey of forest types of India’, of 1962. “It gives us a fair understanding of the regional forests. When it comes to afforestation, we can learn from them or similar works carried out in the recent past on the species and densities we must plant. Of course, there is no shortcut to learning from the existing reference sites in the larger landscapes,” he says.

We are at the Aravalli Biodiversity Park (ABP) in Gurgaon, which has gone from being a landscape to India’s first ‘Other effective Area-based Conservation Measures site, which basically means a biodiversity hotspot. In over a decade, helmed by Dhasmana, the curator, the park was cured of many invasive species and in its place, one sees a flourish of native trees such as salai, dhok, dhak, kaim, babool, hingot, ghatbor and jungli karonda .

Talking about the relevance of the Aravallis, Dhasmana says, “They’re the oldest fold mountains in the world, even older than the Himalayas. They extend all the way from Delhi to Gujarat. The park itself is mostly quartzite rock, which is possibly some 1,500 million years old. Just imagine the geological timescape.”

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ABP is a story of how a city came together and created a place for wilderness. Citizen group ‘iamgurgaon’, with ideas from then municipal commissioner Sudhir Rajpal to involve corporates, led to turning a barren land into one of NCR’s most nourishing and calming spaces.

“As the place was getting restored so was the soil — there were microbes, worms, and fungi that enriched it,” he says. He points to the denser, more earthy brown mud, unlike the lifeless, lighter brown sandy texture at the entrance of the park. If you’re a good forester, you’ll look at the floor of the forest — if there are no new shoots in there, it’s not regenerating, he says.

Dhasmana points to the perennial apamarga, with its prickly erect flowers, as he flips out his portable microscope, and shows the ‘hooks’ beneath the leaves. “A fruit will tell you how it’s going to be dispersed and therefore what kind of habitat it creates. If it is not dispersed by birds or animals, it will find ways of dispersal, wind, water or just by dropping them. The marodphali is like that, the fruit will unfold as it dries up and then will drop its seeds. In a jungle you will find colonies of this plant, it moves like an army, but with the kullu tree, the seed is round so it may fall on a rock and roll away and germinate elsewhere. Then, there are other seeds that birds pick up and poop it out kilometers away. These are different strategies that a plant adopts to survive,” says Dhasmana.

He talks about taking a group of people for a walk and they observed that some of the leaves of plants were eaten, clearly by worms and insects. They had tips on controlling the pest menace. “I had to tell them it means that something is eating it, which means something is surviving on it, which means it’s a host plant and there is a relationship, in which an entire ecosystem is dependent and thriving,” he says.

“When people look at parks, they want manicured spaces and everything in order. But in the wilderness, you behave as the wild does, you have to tune in,” he says, and soon we realise we can no longer hear the traffic, the air is cleaner, the skies clearer and the temperature cooler.

Along the trail, one spots the wild hibiscus plant. Besides its healing properties, Dhasmana says that it induces sleep and cures insomnia. As we skim the treelines and reach the amphitheater, he mentions the salai, the Indian frankincense, an important plant in the Aravallis. The tree, however, is exploited for its gum. “If you go to Sariska, where also you will see quartzite and hardly any soil, you will see a salai forest on the top layer. In ABP, too, there’s salai on the rocky areas. On the slopes you get dhau and in the valleys you will see kaim. Then there are grasslands. The idea at ABP was to bring the forests of the Aravallis back to the city,” says Dhasmana.

It was a tough task to get it done. They began by procuring seeds they could germinate. From around 35 species in the first year, they moved to 54, then 83, then it went all the way to 200 species. “Any restoration project should have its own nursery. Most of the plants we have on this 380 acre is from our own nursery,” says Dhasmana.
Dhasmana then thrusts tiny oval leaves into our hands, which we daringly eat. For the next few minutes our tongues are numb from the bitterness of the bhui amla. Next, Dhasmana asks around for chocolate as he offers leaves of the gurmar. It pretty much paralyses the tongue and chocolate tastes like mud. The “destroyer of sugar”, it’s excellent for diabetes control, we read later.

Dhasmana, who is in his late-40s, has been working in the field of ecological restoration for nearly two decades. While he stays committed to ecologically restoring damaged and fragmented landscapes of the Aravallis, his work in Thar, Rajasthan, and Uttara-khand’s Rajaji Forests continue.

As one goes deeper into ABP, paths get narrow and canopies grow dense. It’s hard to imagine that more than a decade ago, this land only had the invasive vilayati kikar, lantanas and a few hardy shrubs. Today, one can see patches of dhok forests, salai forests, dhak forests and some remarkable native plants of the Aravallis.

“Alien invasive species do not support local ecology, wildlife, or microorganisms. We are taming the forests now, creating monocultures, where organisms are not in a healthy relationship with one another. It is detrimental for the local ecology,” he says.

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