Plantations, habitations and agriculture land included by Kasturirangan panel in ESZ area will not be notified; decision announced a day before elections declared
Bowing to pressure from the Kerala government, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has decided to reduce the area of the ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ) in the Western Ghats. MoEF had earlier accepted the recommendations of a high-level working group to declare over one-third of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive to protect the region from mining and other industrial projects. But it modified its decision just a day before the general election dates were announced and the model code of conduct came into force. On March 4, the government announced that more than 3,100 square kilometre of “agriculture land, plantations and habitations” in Kerala will be omitted from the ESZ notification.
The Western Ghats, which extend from Gujarat in the north-west 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 also received the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag last year.
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 last year, the committee had recommended that 37 per cent area of the Western Ghats, which represents a band of contiguous vegetation and is extremely rich in biodiversity, should be declared as eco-sensitive. It also suggested that no new projects or expansion of projects related to mining, quarrying, thermal power plants and highly polluting industries should be allowed in ESA.
Door open for further modifications in ESZ
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 the states where people feared that their rights and livelihood will 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 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. While the ministry is yet to issue a draft notification of ESZ, it said on March 4 that it has accepted the recommendation of the Kerala government. It also left itself open to modify the boundaries of the proposed ESZ in other Western Ghats state as well if the states make suggestions and objections based on the field verifications as done by Kerala.
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