Wildlife’s Double Protection

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States must create eco-sensitive zones to provide cushion to animal species

THE National Green Tribunal has directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to finalise the notification of Ecological Sensitive Zone (ESZ) in the Western Ghats by December 31, 2020. There is some justification for the NGT coming down heavily on the MoEF because ESZ  notification for the Western Ghats was to be done after completing the exercise within six months. The NGT’s order is expected to push the MoEF to complete the exercise by the deadline as non-compliance would mean stopping the salary of the advisor, ESZ Division, MoEF. The MoEF might not find it an easy task. The Western Ghats are one of the richest biodiversity areas of India. They are spread through territories of six states namely, Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, so the governments of these states have to cooperate with the MoEF in completing the exercise within the restrictions placed by the NGT. Earlier the NGT had allowed the MoEF to republish the draft notification of the Western Ghats and asked it to finalise the matter within six months without alterations to the eco-sensitive zone in terms of notification dated February 27, 2017. The draft notification issued by the MoEF had identified an area of 56,825 square kilometres as Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA). Noting that the ecology of the Western Ghats was under ‘serious stress’, the NGT had restrained the six concerned states from giving environmental clearance to activities which may adversely affect the ESA.

The MoEF and the six states of Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu must speed up the process not only because the NGT had attached a severe penalty to its latest directive, but because it is in the interest of these states to do so. The final notification of the ESA in the Western Ghats has been pending for the past eight years. The ESA comprises a little more than one-third of the area of the Western Ghats, a demarcation that has been arrived at after studies done at the instance of the central government. The delay has largely been owing to the unfinished dialogue on development versus environmental protection in the proposed ESA. All the concerned states want to reduce the ESA to get more land for development. The MoEF has to compel the states to settle the disputes on this account and submit a final view which it must present by December 31 to the NGT for final approval.

An ecologically sensitive area or zone (ESZ) is primarily an area/zone around a Protected Area—a protected area (PA) is a wildlife sanctuary, a national park or a tiger reserve—in order to provide double protection to the wildlife along with their habitats and ecosystems. It has been observed that a protected area is not enough for the protection of wildlife as there is human-animal conflict around it. Animals of protected and endangered species are killed to serve the ends of humans. There being no restrictions on ‘development’ outside the limits of a protected area, economic activities are common, without much regard to the cause of protection of wildlife, thus defeating the very purpose of designating a protected area. The ESZ would be a no development zone around every protected area. It will be like a cushion between development zones and protected areas. It will add depth to the protection of wildlife in sanctuaries, parks and reserves.

It is not only in the Western Ghats that the demarcation of ESZ has been hanging fire. It has been pending for the whole country. It was in 2002 that the Wildlife Board had decided to mark eco-sensitive zones around protected areas. The original concept was that an ESZ should be an area with a radius of 10 kilometres around a protected area. From the outset, however, all  states opposed the idea, pleading that a 10-km-radius  ESZ would mean uprooting and resettlement of human habitations and closure and relocation of economic activities. In view of the states’ pressure, the central government decided in 2005 that an ESZ would be created only around a protected area which is considered very fragile and not around all protected areas. The government also decided that ESZs would allow economic activities with regulation. The indecision must end.