It cannot be ‘yatras as usual’ in Uttarakhand

Praveen Bhargav is managing trustee of the conservation non-profit Wildlife First

By Praveen Bhargav
Published: Thursday 27 June 2013

Praveen Bhargav is managing trustee of the conservation non-profit Wildlife First

I have been working on the issue of notification of Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs) in the Western Ghats for some time now and thus aware of the sordid attempts to block this important protection measure. The devastating calamity in Uttarakhand has now brought the ESZ issue into sharp focus and triggered extensive debates.

It all started in January 2002 when the Indian Board for Wildlife (now National Board for Wildlife) adopted the Wildlife Conservation Strategy -2002 in which it was envisaged that areas upto 10 kms of the boundaries of National Parks and Sanctuaries should be notified as ESZs under section 3 (v) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (EPA) and Rule 5 (viii) & (x) of the Environment Protection Rules. Subsequently, the Supreme Court passed an Order on 4-12-2006 while hearing a petition (WP 460/2004) filed by the Goa Foundation, and sought a response from States on notification of ESZ to conserve forests, wildlife and environment and having regard to the Precautionary Principle. The SC presciently observed that “…If the States/Union Territories now fail to respond, they would do so at their own risk and peril”. Importantly, the SC had also directed the MoEF to refer all proposals within the 10 km ESZ, where Environmental Clearance was granted, to the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). 

In February 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issued comprehensive Guidelines which mandate that an area up to 10 km width around a Protected Area (PA) is to be notified as an ESZ. It has also clarified that in case of ecologically important areas and critical linkages it can even go beyond 10 km. Activities in an ESZ are classified under three regimes – prohibited, regulated and permissible. Mining and large hydel projects which destroy habitat integrity and pose a serious threat to fragile landscapes like the Himalayas come under the prohibited regime. However all on-going agricultural and horticultural activity are in the permissible category and can continue un-hindered. More importantly, acquisition of land or resettlement is not envisaged in these ESZs.

Most State Governments under pressure from powerful corporate entities and other entrenched vested interests continue to defy the Supreme Court and are stonewalling the implementation of the MoEF Guidelines on ESZ notifications. In the Western Ghats such vested interests launched a massive misinformation campaign against ESZs to create fear of displacement amongst communities living around PAs in order whip up public sentiment.  Even elected representatives have actively supported such vicious campaigns to block the notification of ESZs.

Fundamentally, the challenge before the nation is to prevent further fragmentation or breaking up of ecologically fragile and important landscapes due to ill planned and improperly sited development projects. There exists a strong body of peer reviewed scientific knowledge on landscape ecology which requires to be applied to identify the extent and location of ESZs. Cutting edge scientific tools of high resolution satellite imagery that are currently available would substantially contribute in arriving at a judicious decision on the location and extent required to be notified. But State Governments are not interested.

While we continue to debate this issue and push for notification of ESZs to secure fragile areas in the Himalayas, the Western Ghats and other landscapes, there is an immediate and urgent need to reach out to local communities living in the periphery of Protected Areas and reassure them as to why an ESZ notification will not lead to displacement or disruption of their bona fide agricultural/livelihood activities. This will be very crucial to minimize hostility and ensure success of this vital conservation strategy to secure ecologically fragile landscapes from the perils of destructive development projects like dams, roads and uncontrolled tourism.

In 2009, while on a site inspection of the Govind National Park located in the Uttarakashi district as a member of the Boundary Rationalisation Committee of the MoEF, I had observed the fragility of the area and made the following Recommendations which thankfully was accepted –

“…This would not only eliminate the need to build a 16 km motorable metalled road through the Sanctuary/NP from Taluka upto Osla but also preempt the intrusion of high intensity vehicle borne tourism into the fragile sub-alpine regions of National Park. The threat of the road extending from Osla upto Harkidun and even towards Yamnotri in the coming decades is very real… The proposal to construct a 16 km motorable road upto Osla should not be considered and no motorable road must be constructed beyond Taluka Forest IB”. 

Coming back to the Uttarakhand disaster, there is another immediate threat that’s lurking around. With huge sums of money that is bound to flow in from various sources including, possibly, multilateral agencies like World Bank, the potential threat of un-scientific but “lucrative” restoration projects looms large. A senior official from Uttarakhand with whom I spoke after the disaster, aptly described it to me by saying that some officials are already ‘salivating’ at the prospect of handling such large funds.

The Government must therefore ensure that the right experts are involved in the preparation of restoration and recovery plans which must be put up for public scrutiny. It would also be essential to empower committed local groups for on-ground monitoring of the implementation which cannot be left to officials alone.

This extraordinary situation presents a rare opportunity to rectify past development mistakes in Uttarakhand by adopting a proper scientific approach. It should also recognize the carrying capacity limits of the fragile mountains objectively and not based on religious considerations alone. With the consequences of climate change and its associated impacts, it cannot be ‘yatras as usual’ any more.

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