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Nature lovers have been under attack for months (April)

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Times of India, Delhi, Tuesday 1st April 2014

The Mangar forest, just off Gurgaon-Faridabad highway, is known as a birder's paradise. It's among the last remaining green reserves in NCR and is an important groundwater recharge zone. But of late, this place has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. On Sunday morning, two members of a group of birdwatchers were allegedly assaulted by a local priest and his henchmen. And this was no one-off incident.

To environmentalist Pradip Krishen, the Mangar forest is a reminder of "how beautiful Delhi's ecosystem can be". "But Sunday's incident was absolutely shocking. These guys were beaten up with the intent to cause grievous harm," Krishen said, adding he got into a similar, albeit less violent, confrontation with the holy man when he had gone visiting Mangar with a friend around seven months ago.

"The friend was slapped by this priest. And we sensibly didn't fight back. So it was settled back then," he said.

Ecological gardener Vijay Dhamsana, who was among the two men attacked on Sunday morning, said "this has happened before". "That priest is a repeat offender. Some days back, a group of foreigners were threatened. I have heard that they have done the same thing with many others," he said. There's a possibility, according to Dhamsana, that the priest may've been "hand in glove with the land mafia".

Sunil Harsana, a resident of the Mangar village who works as an independent environmental activist around these parts, said there have been a couple or three similar incidents in the past. "People were threatened and slapped. But on Sunday, they crossed all limits," he said.

Harsana empathically denied that villagers were involved in the attack on the birders. "The villagers have had no problems with outsiders coming here for decades. This was done by a special group of people with vested interests," said Harsana, who also claimed he had been repeatedly threatened by the land mafia.

R P Balwan, former forest conservator for south Haryana, has followed the rising wave of hooliganism. "On one side is the land mafia that exploits local priests. On the other are these priests who are only interested in money, and they in turn exploit people of the village. This is what's been happening at Mangar," said Balwan.

In recent years, reports of land encroachment and illegal felling of trees have poured in from this region. The Haryana government, with its attempts to change the land use for this region for commercial purposes, hasn't helped the deteriorating scenario.

With the most famous nature trail of NCR becoming a crime den, village elders in Mangar said they can only express dismay at the present situation. "There have been murders inside the forests, which is usually deserted throughout the day. Some years ago, the body of a girl was found. This is all the doing of outsiders," said Chandaram, Mangar's sarpanch.