Extensive lobbying by the Congress-led state may have led to the decision, it is believed
Bowing to pressure from the Kerala government, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had recently decided to reduce the area of the ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ) in the Western Ghats. In a development on Tuesday, the ministry issued a draft notification keeping the boundaries of ESZ in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu same as those proposed by the Kasturirangan Committee. ESZ boundaries for Kerala, however, were finalised as per the recommendations made by the state government.
The ministry can make modifications in these boundaries if it receives suggestions or objections from states based on field verifications within 60 days, as done by Kerala.
On March 18, MoEF had issued draft notification for declaring 56,825 square kilometre (sq km) as ESZ in the six Western Ghats states. But the order removed 3,100 sq km of “agriculture land, plantations and habitations” in Kerala from ESZ, which was originally proposed by a high-level working group and was earlier accepted by the ministry. It is believed that extensive lobbying by the Congress-led Kerala government with the Centre has led to MoEF’s move to reduce ESZ area.
The Western Ghats, which extend from Gujarat in the northwest to Tamil Nadu in the south, covering an area of over 164,000 sq km, have been identified as one of the world’s eight richest biodiversity hot spots. The mountain range has received the UNESCO world heritage site status.
A high-level working group of the environment ministry, headed by Planning Commission member K Kasturirangan, was formed by the ministry in August 2012 to suggest measures to protect the ecological sanctity of the Western Ghats. In April this year, the committee had recommended that 37 per cent area of the Western Ghats (59,940 sq km), which represents a band of contiguous vegetation and is extremely rich in biodiversity, should be declared eco-sensitive. It also suggested that no new project or expansion of projects related to mining, quarrying, thermal power plants and highly polluting industries should be allowed in ecologically sensitive area (ESA).
In October, the ministry, after taking into consideration the suggestions and objections by various stakeholders, including the state governments, agreed “in principle” with the recommendations of the panel. The ministry’s decision to accept the Kasturirangan report was met with widespread protests in states where people feared that their rights and livelihood would be affected by the ESA notification despite the ministry clarifying that the ESA notification will not affect land ownership rights of people and agriculture, horticulture and plantation practices will continue.
The Congress-led Kerala government, however, actively kept lobbying with MoEF and Veerappa Moily, who took charge of the ministry in December last year, to reduce the area falling under ESZ in the state. While the Kasturirangan Committee identified 13,108 sq km in Kerala as ESZ, an expert committee constituted by the state to assess the impact of the committee’s recommendation on its people argued that only 9,993.7 sq km area should be kept under ESZ.
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