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It is the last opportunity for states, warns ministry official
The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has extended the deadline for the states to declare eco-sensitive zones around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries by three more months. The previous deadline expired on February 15.
Eco-sensitive zones are the ecologically important areas designated to be protected from industrial pollution and unregulated development under the Environment Protection Act of 1986. In 2002, MoEF had decided to declare an area of 10 km from the boundaries of protected areas as eco-sensitive zones to create a buffer around them. But many states opposed it, fearing it would hamper development. The decision was challenged in the Supreme Court. In 2005, MoEF, on the recommendation of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), decided that states will declare eco-sensitive zones on site-specific, case-to-case basis, and that industrial activity in such zones would be regulated instead of being prohibited. Till the time these zones are not notified, all projects that require environmental clearance and fall within 10 km of the boundary of a protected area were to be placed before NBWL’s standing committee for approval.
The ministry has sent several reminders to states to propose eco-sensitive zones. It formulated guidelines to declare area-specific eco-sensitive zones in February 2011, but not many states forwarded proposals. India has 102 national parks and 515 wildlife sanctuaries, but till January this year, only seven eco-sensitive zones were notified around protected areas. In the meanwhile, the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) that advises the Supreme Court on forest matters suggested that such zones should be limited to up to two kilometres from the boundary of the national parks. It said this would expedite the process of declaring the eco-sensitive zones. The ministry, however, did not buy this argument and advocated the existing mechanism of declaring site-specific safety zones around each protected area or restricting industrial activity within 10 km from its boundary in case such zones are not identified (see ‘Smaller eco zone irks ministry’).
Later, the ministry issued directions to the states on December 31, 2012, giving them the deadline of February 15 to send proposals for site-specific eco-sensitive zones around the protected areas. It said if the proposals were not sent for particular protected area by the deadline, the restrictions on industrial development will be imposed in an area of 10 km around that protected area. As the states panicked and started preparing the proposals, communities living around several protected areas in the country started protesting against the declaration of these zones. Reports from Maharashtra, Goa and Madhya Pradesh suggest people feared that notification of such zones would hamper their development.
While many states have formed committees of forest department and environmentalists to identify eco-sensitive zoones, it seems not many of them could comply with the deadline of February 15. “The states have requested for more time. Preparation of proposals has progressed well in several states but it is pending approval at the state governments' level. We have given them a last opportunity by extending the deadline for three more months,” said an official in the MoEF.