Central Empowered Committee wants to reduce eco-sensitive zones around protected areas
TWO environment watchdogs have locked horns over the size of eco-safety zones around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has opposed the recommendation of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to limit the safety zones that restrict industrial activity around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries to up to two kilometres from their boundaries.
MoEF advocates 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.
India has 102 national parks and 515 wildlife sanctuaries. In 2002, MoEF had decided to declare an area of 10 km from the boundaries of protected areas as eco-sensitive zones (ESZs). 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 ESZs on site-specific, case-to-case basis, and industrial activity in such zones will be regulated instead of being prohibited.
Till the time ESZs are not notified, all projects that require environmental clearance and fall within 10 km of the boundary of a protected area will be placed before NBWL’s standing committee for approval. The ministry has sent several reminders to states to propose ESZs, but not many were notified. Till date, four states have notified seven ESZs. On September 20 this year, a day before the apex court was to hear the matter, CEC, an adviser to the court, submitted a note proposing a new mechanism for declaring ESZs. It classified national parks and wildlife sanctuaries into four categories based on their area and proposed safety zones of 2 km, 1 km, 500 m and 100 m from the boundary for each category. The note prohibits certain activities in this area, but others are to be regulated or permitted by the state. The court seemed inclined to accept CEC’s recommendations with some modifications and asked MoEF to respond to the report before giving the final order.
In an affidavit filed in October-end MoEF said the proposal to restrict industrial activity instead of notifying site-specific safety zones lacks scientific base and does not help in conservation. The modifications indicate “a convenience of management than any objective criteria”, it adds.
Conservationists think CEC has diluted the safety provisions. Non-official members of NBWL’s standing committee, in its meeting on October 31, reportedly argued that ESZ limit as recommended by CEC, is not sufficient to arrest the influence of prohibited activities. They say any project falling within 10 km of the boundary of the protected area must be cleared by NBWL. In some cases, like Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, ESZ goes up to 8.5 km. If CEC’s recommendations are followed, any project beyond 2 km from the park limit will be exempted from the NBWL clearance requirement.
The members are also unhappy with activities permitted within the safety zones. MoEF guidelines for declaring ESZs prohibit major hydel projects within ESZs, but CEC puts hydel projects in the list of regulated activities.
“We cannot have a one-size-fits-all approach,” said NBWL member Prerna Bindra. Some protected areas, due to their small size and landscape features, may require a larger safety zone to maintain ecological integrity. What is essential for a protected area in the terai region or in the central Indian landscape may be very different from the ecological requirements of a marine park or of one in Ladakh, she says.
“We do not know how CEC came into the picture. It seems to be suo moto suggesting this new mechanism, saying the pace of notification of such zones is very slow in the current mechanism. We cannot uniformly define the extent of ESZ for all protected areas,” said a ministry official. A CEC member, however, stressed the ESZ note was prepared as per the court’s instructions.