Baba’s Explainer – Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ)

  • IASbaba
  • July 19, 2022
  • 0
Environment & Ecology
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  • GS-3: Conservation and challenges
  • GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.

Context: Farmers in Kerala continue to protest across several high ranges of the state against the Supreme Court’s recent order to establish 1-km Eco-Sensitive Zones around all protected areas, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.

What are ESZs and what is the purpose of it?
  • The ESZs are envisaged as a cushion or shock absorbers for the protected areas, to minimize the negative impact on the “fragile ecosystems” by certain human activities taking place nearby.
    • ESZs are not meant to hamper the daily activities of people living in the vicinity, but are meant to guard the protected areas and “refine the environment around them”.
  • They are supposed to act as the transition zones from areas of high protection to less protection. The National Wildlife Action Plan 2002-2016 had identified them as “vital ecological corridor links” and stressed that they must be protected to prevent isolation of fragments of biodiversity.
    • They are important for the animals moving out to other forests. Development along or around such areas will impair the corridor functionality and thus push animals into more grave conflict situations
  • ESZs help in in-situ conservation, which deals with conservation of an endangered species in its natural habitat, for example the conservation of the One-horned Rhino of Kaziranga National Park, Assam.
  • Eco-Sensitive Zones minimise forest depletion and man-animal conflict. The protected areas are based on the core and buffer model of management, through which local area communities are also protected and benefitted.
  • Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs) or Ecologically Fragile Areas (EFAs) in India notified by the ESZ is, therefore, a mechanism devised by the government to safeguard the protected areas by creating a buffer/ cushion against the unsustainable, hazardous, and destructive activities.
  • Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), Government of India around Protected Areas, National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries.
What activities are prohibited & allowed in ESZs?
  • Prohibited activities: Activities, including commercial mining, setting of saw mills and industries causing pollution, commercial use of firewood and major hydro-power projects, are prohibited in ESZs.
    • The guidelines from Environment Ministry also prohibits tourism activities like flying over protected areas in an aircraft or hot air balloon, and discharge of effluents and solid waste in natural water bodies or terrestrial areas.
  • Regulated Activities: Felling of trees, drastic change in agriculture systems and commercial use of natural water resources, including groundwater harvesting and setting up of hotels and resorts, are the activities regulated in the areas.
  • Permitted activities: These include ongoing agriculture and horticulture practices by local communities, rainwater harvesting, organic farming, adoption of green technology and use of renewable energy sources.
What is the extent of Eco-Sensitive Zones?
  • The concept of the eco-sensitive zones around protected areas had first taken shape in January 2002 when during the meeting of the Indian Board for Wildlife a strategy was adopted that held that areas within 10 kilometres radius of the protected areas should be declared as eco-fragile zones and activities should be regulated in such areas.
  • However, the states had raised concern against the 10 km criteria stating that this would end up covering all major human habitations and cities and would adversely affect the development.
  • Subsequently, in 2005, it was decided that identification of ESZs around protected areas would be site-specific and would work on the principle of regulation rather than prohibition of activities. Since then, this work has been going on.
  • Even the National Wildlife Action Plan 2017-2031 calls for properly demarcating the boundaries of protected areas and carrying out zonation for their effective management.
  • The extent of such eco-sensitive zones could range from 0-10 kilometres and in some exceptional cases it can even go beyond that and a zero extent zone is, in effect, non-existent.
  • The ESZs of the protected areas are finalised by an expert committee of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) wherein the ESZ proposals presented by state governments are discussed and fine-tuned.
  • Over the years, the number of protected areas have also gone up in the country. At present, the number of protected areas (wildlife sanctuaries and national parks including tiger reserves) is over 660 and together they account for less than five percent of India’s total geographical area.
Are there any statutory provisions for declaring ESZs?
  • Section 5 C(1) of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 states that it shall be the duty of the National Board for Wildlife to promote the conservation and development of wild life and forests by such measures as it thinks fit.
  • Section 3 of Environmental Protection Act, 1986 gives power to the Central government i.e. the Union Environment Ministry to take all measures that it feels is necessary for the purpose of protect environment & control its pollution. To meet this objective, the central government can restrict areas in which any industries, operations or process shall not be carried out or shall be carried out with restrictions & safeguards.
  • Rule 5(1) of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986 states that central government can prohibit or restrict the location of industries and carrying on certain operations or processes on the basis of considerations like the biological diversity of an area, environmentally compatible land use, and proximity to protected areas.
  • Thus, Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 does not mention the word “Eco-Sensitive Zones”. However, the above two clauses have been effectively used by the government to declare ESZs or EFAs.
Why are the challenges/concerns with declaration & protection of ECZs?
  • Playing Lip Service to ESZ: The guidelines make it clear that an ESZ can go beyond 10 kms in case of corridors etc. but this is almost never seen in the ESZs. Also, by declaring ESZ as zero km in certain areas around the protected areas , the very purpose of having ESZ around PA gets defeated.
  • Developmental activities: Activities such as construction of dams, roads, in the ESZ, create interference, negatively impact upon the environment and imbalance the ecological system.
    • For example, construction of road would lead to cutting down of trees which would further impact upon, soil erosion thereby destroying the habitats of the species preserved under the ESZ
  • Pressure of Urbanisation: Over the years, areas around many of the protected areas have undergone tremendous change including rapid urbanisation. As a result, some of the protected areas are now in the middle of high-density human habitations.
    • One such case is related to Maharashtra’s Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary. It is in the middle of the highly urbanised area of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai and it is close to Thane city and the proposed ESZ of 0-3.5 km is considered as inadequate to conserve the diverse animal species present in the sanctuary.
  • Accessibility of information in readable format: Another major problem is the lack of transparency. The ESZ maps in GIS (Geographic Information System) format should be made freely available to the common man. Right now it is a daunting task to access these maps.
  • Distorted agenda of Forest Officials: Many times, even forest officials who are supposed to safeguard the future of the Protected Areas (PA)/forest of which they are custodians, end becoming advocates of so-called ‘development’ for securing their own posting tenures. For their own self-interest, they decide to sacrifice the long-term future of the PA by manipulating important provisions such as ESZ.
  • Blocking of edges enhancing human-wildlife conflict: Take the instance of Bandipur Tiger Reserve, where years of absence of any ESZs has led to mushrooming of resorts and holiday homes in many parts of its edges. Declaration of a well assessed ESZ will provide respite from such blocking of the edges of the reserve & also helps in tackling the increased instances of human-animal conflict observed in these area.
  • Climate change: Biodiversity and climate change are interconnected, for example, the rise in global temperature has generated land, water and ecological stress on the ESZs. For example, forest fires or the Assam floods which badly affected the Kaziranga National Park and its wildlife.
What was the Gadgil Report on Western Ghats?
  • The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) with chairman Madhav Gadgil, was an environmental research commission appointed by the Union Environment Ministry in 2010.
  • The objective of appointing such a committee was to
    • assess the status of ecology, demarcate areas within the Western Ghats Region for notifying ecologically sensitive zones under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
    • Suggest modalities for the conservation, protection and rejuvenation of the Western Ghats Region through a comprehensive consultation process with all stakeholders.

The committee submitted its report in 2011, the key highlights of which are

  • The panel, in its report, has classified the 142 taluks in the Western Ghats boundary into Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) 1, 2 and 3.
  • Gadgil report marked out 60 percent of the Western Ghats as the highest-priority Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ -1)
  • Indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2.
  • A phasing out of mining from ESZ1 by next five years, Phase-out of all chemical pesticides within five to eight years in ESZ I and ESZ II, plastic bags in three years.
  • Continuing existing mining in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 2 under strict regulation with an effective social audit mechanism.
  • Prohibited new red and orange category industries, such as coal based power plants, in Ecologically Sensitive Zones 1 and 2.
  • Cultivation of Genetically Modified crops was banned in the entire region.
  • No new special economic zones or hill stations, dams, railway lines or major roads in Ecologically Sensitive zone-1 and zone-2 areas.
  • Ban on conversion of public lands to private lands, and on diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes in ESZ -1and ESZ -2 areas.
  • Regulating tourism.

None of the six concerned states (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat) accepted the Gadgil committee report.

What was the Kasturirangan Report on Western Ghats?
  • In August 2012, a High-Level Working Group on Western Ghats under Kasturirangan was constituted  to “examine” the Gadgil Committee report in a “holistic and multidisciplinary fashion in the light of responses received” from various stakeholders.
  • Like other reports on the topic, the said report also emphasized the importance of conserving the rich biodiversity of the Ghat.
  • It classified 60% of the Western Ghats as a cultural landscape with human settlements, agriculture and plantations.
  • Remaining area was termed as natural landscape, with37% “biologically rich” area, close to 60,000 sq km.
  • Only 37% classified as an ecologically sensitive area (ESA)
  • The report categorized areas on the basis of their ecological sensitivity.
  • Activities affecting the ecology negatively were to be banned or restricted in highly sensitive zones.
  • Opined that the “blanket prescription” approach of the Gadgil committee would be harmful to the economy.
  • The environment-friendly, sustainable agriculture practices, methods adopted by Kodagu coffee planters were treated as a model.
  • The ‘Orange’ category industries (food processing industry) were not banned, but careful process and production techniques were prioritized to minimize environmental damage.
  • Infrastructure projects related to transport to be approved only after cumulative impact.
  • Extension of entry 20 of the Concurrent List (Economic Planning) to consider environmental concerns as part of the planning
  • The committee emphasized on providing incentives for “Green Growth” in the Ghat area.
    • “Environmentally sound development cannot preclude livelihood and economic options for this region. The answer (to the question of how to manage and conserve the Ghats) will not lie in removing these economic options, but in providing better incentives to move them towards greener and more sustainable practices”.
  • It also stated that the UNESCO Heritage tag is an opportunity to build global and domestic recognition of the enormous natural wealth that exists in the Western Ghats.
    • The 39 sites are located across the Western Ghats and distributed across the states (Kerala 19), Karnataka (10), Tamil Nadu (6) and Maharashtra (4).
    • The state of Karnataka has the highest percentage of the ESA- 46.50 per cent.

Even here, the concerned states are not happy with the report. The Karnataka & Kerala government has repeatedly rejected the implementation of the Kasturirangan report.

Why have the successive governments in Karnataka rejected the Kasturirangan report?
  • The state government believes that implementation of the report will halt the developmental activities in the region.
  • The Kasturirangan report has been prepared based on the satellite images, but the ground reality is different.
  • The government is of the opinion that people of the region have adopted agriculture and horticultural activities in an eco-friendly manner. Priority has been accorded for environment protection under the Forest Protection Act. In this background bringing one more law that would affect the livelihood of the local people.
  • Politicians from the concerned region have always opposed the Kasturirangan report since 600-plus villages will fall under the eco-sensitive area if the report is implemented.
  • The union government since 2014 has issued several draft notifications to the Karnataka government to finalise the eco-sensitive areas in the Western Ghats but the government has been firm in rejecting the implementation of the report.
What was the recent Supreme Court Order on ESZ Notification?
  • In June 2022, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court heard a PIL which sought to protect forest lands in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, but was later expanded to cover the entire country.
  • As a result, the three-judge Supreme Court Bench referring to the 2011 guidelines as “reasonable” passed a directive to have a mandatory ecologically sensitive zones of minimum one kilometre measured from the demarcated boundary of every protected forest, including the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
  • It also stated that no new permanent structure or mining will be permitted within the ESZ.
  • If the existing ESZ goes beyond 1-km buffer zone or if any statutory instrument prescribes a higher limit, then such extended boundary shall prevail
  • This directive led to upheaval in states where any regulatory mechanism on land and land use patterns would have political ramifications.
Why is Kerala State protesting against the SC directive?
  • Nearly 30% of Kerala is forested land and the Western Ghats occupies 48% of the State.
  • Moreover, there is a network of lakes, canals, wetlands and the 590-kilometre-long coastline, which are all governed by a series of environmental conservation and protection legislations, leaving little space for its 3.5 crore population to occupy.
  • With an average population density of 900 persons per square kilometre, much higher than the national average, the demographic pressure on the available land is unusually high in the Kerala State
  • The State Government fears that the Supreme Court’s notification may worsen the ground situation as it would adversely impact the interests of the State besides upsetting the lives of millions living near the protected areas.
  • The total extent of the wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala is eight lakh acres. If one-km of ESZ is demarcated from their boundaries, around 4 lakh acres of human settlements, including farmlands, would come within that purview. This is a matter of sheer survival of lakhs of people.
  • Earlier, while preparing the draft ESZ notifications for its protected areas, the State Government had taken care to exclude the areas with high population density, government and quasi-government institutions, and public institutions from the ambit of the notification.
  • This is not the first time that Kerala has faced such protests. In 2013, hartals first erupted in Idukki and Wayanad after the Kasturirangan committee report recommended that 60,000 km of the Western Ghats, covering 12 of Kerala’s 14 districts, be notified as ecologically sensitive areas.
  • Similar protests had taken place in Karnataka as well.

Future options for Kerala

  • Kerala is pinning its hope on the Centre’s stand that it was willing to discuss its concerns with the State government.
  • The State government has also decided to explore the option of approaching the Central Empowered Committee, as directed by the Supreme Court in its order, to convince the forum of the need to maintain zero ecologically sensitive zone in the areas of human habitation.
  • It may also approach the apex court seeking exemption from the one kilometre ecologically sensitive zone regime and to limit it to zero wherever required.

Mains Practice Question –The reduction in the Ecological Sensitive Zone, may open up more areas in the vicinity for mining and commercial development around the rapidly-urbanising country. In the light of this statement, critically analyse the need for implementing ESZ?

Note: Write answers to this question in the comment section.


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