Relevance : GS Paper 2, Indian Polity
Ecologically sensitive zones (ESZs) are intended to safeguard ‘protected areas’ such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries by transitioning from an area of lower protection to an area of higher protection.
However, the creation of these zones has sparked protests in Kerala and some other regions, with this likely to emerge in other parts of the country.
This blog post will take a closer look at the concept of protected areas, the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the implementation of the FRA, Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs) and the issues surrounding the creation of ESZs.
What are Protected Areas?
Protected areas are designated areas that are meant to protect and conserve the natural environment and its biodiversity.
India has 108 national parks and 564 wildlife sanctuaries that cover 5.26% of India’s land area, which are notified under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.
Protected areas prohibit activities that are even permitted in ‘reserve forests’, which extinguish the rights of forest-dependent communities, unless specifically allowed.
Criticism of Fortress Conservation Model
The rights-negating ‘fortress conservation model’, has come under repeated criticism from conservation scientists.
This led to the introduction of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
The FRA recognizes the customary and traditional rights (both individual and collective) of forest-dwellers on forest land, including in protected areas.
Implementation of the FRA
The FRA was introduced to undo a historic injustice done to the forest-dwelling community of India.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) estimated in 2009 that implementing the FRA would mean handing over at least four lakh sq. km, which is more than half of India’s notified forest area, to village-level institutions.
However, as of June 2022, only 64,873.70 sq. km, or 16% of the area, has come under the FRA.
This has been achieved in only a decade and a half, compared to no improvements in the six decades before.
This is attributed to the gram sabhas, which have taken over the power to determine rights through open democratic processes from government officials.
Community Forest Resource (CFR)
These gram sabhas are now the statutory authorities empowered to conserve, protect and manage forests, wildlife and biodiversity lying within the traditional village boundaries.
These areas under gram sabhas are to be a new category of forests called ‘community forest resource’ (CFR).
Gram sabhas have to integrate their CFR conservation and management plan into the ‘working plan’ of the Forest Department, with the required modifications.
What are Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs)?
Surrounding protected areas is a region of more than 1,11,000 sq. km, or 3.4% percent of the country’s land, which falls under the ESZ regime.
Governments have notified 341 ESZs in 29 States and five Union territories, while another 85 ESZs are awaiting notification. Together, protected areas and ESZs cover 8.66% of India’s land area.
The ESZs span notified forests outside protected areas, most of which could also come under gram sabhas’ jurisdiction under the FRA.
Problem With ESZs:
The problem with the implementation of Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZs) is that they fall within the Scheduled Areas notified under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, which cover over 11% of the country’s land area and are thickly forested and mountainous.
These areas are predominantly populated by Scheduled Tribe groups and are notified by the President under Article 244 where the Provisions of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) 1996 apply.
The PESA recognizes habitation-level gram sabhas to be competent to safeguard and preserve community resources on forest and revenue lands in Scheduled Areas.
However, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has not shown any inclination to amend the Indian Forest Act 1927, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 (under which ESZs are notified) to comply with the PESA and FRA.
In fact, in the Forest Conservation Rules, compliance with the FRA, recognition of forest rights and the gram sabha’s consent were preconditions for considering proposals to divert forest land for non-forestry purposes, but the MoEFCC did away with them in 2022.
The Ministry has also ignored demands by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes to restore the erstwhile FRA compliance procedure.
The implementation of ESZs was done through a process where the MoEFCC asked the States and UTs to propose ESZs. Based on the forest rangers’ inventory of land-use and wildlife corridors within 10 km of each protected area, a committee was to determine the extent of each ESZ, the nature of environmental concerns to be addressed, and ways to address them.
The State government would then submit a proposal to the MoEFCC for notification. However, there has been no information provided to the public on a Zonal Master Plan since 2012, when ESZs first began to be notified.
The institutional mechanisms and procedures prescribed in the guidelines and the ESZ notifications disregarded many legal facts and statutory requirements, setting aside the habitation-level gram sabhas in Scheduled Area and CFR forests and the Panchayat-raj institutions entrusted with soil conservation, water management, social forestry, etc. This has led to the protests and issues in regions like Kerala.