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Protests Over Eco-Friendly Zones

Context

Several farmers’ organisations and church bodies in Kerala have announced protests against the state government’s satellite survey of eco-sensitive zones, which is being conducted in accordance with a Supreme Court order.

Relevance:

GS Paper-3: Conservation, Environmental Pollution, and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment

Mains Question

What are eco-sensitive zones, and what is the recent Supreme Court decision that has sparked outrage in Kerala? Discuss. (250 Words)


What exactly are Eco-Sensitive Zones?

  • According to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change’s National Wildlife Action Plan (2002-2016), land within 10 kilometres of the boundaries of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries is to be designated as eco-fragile zones or eco-sensitive zones (ESZ).
  • While the 10-kilometer rule is implemented as a general principle, the extent to which it is applied can vary.
  • Areas larger than 10 km can also be designated as ESZs by the Union government if they contain larger ecologically significant “sensitive corridors.”

What is the purpose of Eco-Sensitive Zones?

  • ESZs are designed to act as “shock absorbers” for protected areas, reducing the negative impact of certain human activities on “fragile ecosystems,” and to serve as a transition zone between areas requiring higher protection and those requiring less protection.
  • The guidelines also state that the ESZs are not meant to hamper the daily activities of people living in the vicinity, but are meant to guard the protected areas and “refine the environment around them”.

Activities permitted in ESZs include:

  • Prohibited activities include: o Commercial mining, sawmills, industries that pollute the environment (air, water, soil, noise, etc.), the establishment of major hydroelectric projects (HEP), commercial use of wood, tourism activities such as hot-air balloon rides over the National Park, the discharge of effluents or any solid waste, and the production of hazardous substances.
  • Regulated activities include: o Tree felling, the establishment of hotels and resorts, commercial use of natural water,
  • Allowed activities include ongoing agricultural or horticultural practises, rainwater harvesting, organic farming, the use of renewable energy sources, and the use of green technology in all activities.

What is the recent Supreme Court decision that has sparked outrage in Kerala?

  • On June 3, a three-judge Supreme Court bench heard a PIL that sought to protect forest lands in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris but was later expanded to cover the entire country.
  • The court directed all states to have a mandatory 1-km ESZ from the demarcated boundaries of every protected forest land, national park, and wildlife sanctuary in its judgement, while referring to the 2011 guidelines as “reasonable.”
  • It also stated that within the ESZ, no new permanent structures or mining will be permitted.
  • If the existing ESZ extends beyond the 1-kilometer buffer zone, or if any statutory instrument prescribes a higher limit, the court will rule in favour of the extended boundary.

What is the reason for the protests?

  • Because of the high density of human settlements near the notified protected areas, farmer’s groups and political parties have demanded that all human settlements be exempted from the ESZ ruling.
  • Some farmers are concerned that the regulations that may accompany the ESZ delineation will make farming impossible. They are concerned that they will be gradually evicted from their properties.
  • The establishment of a buffer zone would result in the establishment of a parallel administrative system run by the State Forest Department.
  • Once the buffer zone is notified, forest officers will call the shots and create unnecessary obstacles for farmers and settlers.
  • The State Government believes that the SC’s notification will worsen the ground situation because it will harm the State’s interests while upsetting the lives of millions who live near protected areas.
  • In its order, the Supreme Court directed the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of each State and Union Territory (UT) to compile a list of existing structures and other relevant details within the respective ESZs and submit a report within three months.
  • The court stated that the states/UTs could seek the assistance of any governmental agency for satellite imaging or photography using drones in order to compile the list.
  • The Kerala State Remote Sensing and Environment Centre (KSRSEC) was tasked with this task by the Kerala government.
  • Report Findings: o Using satellite images, the KSRSEC report identified 49,330 existing structures, including 14,771 residential buildings and 2,803 commercial buildings.
    • The KSRSEC also reported that 115 villages in Kerala would be included in the buffer zone of the state’s protected areas.
    • According to its report, ESZs would cover a total area of 1,588.709 square kilometres.
    • The state’s sanctuaries and national parks cover an area of 3,441.207 square kilometres.
    • The assessment discovered 83 tribal settlements within the State’s ESZs.
  • With several farmer organisations, Church factions, and political parties protesting the study’s ‘inaccuracy,’ the Kerala government was forced to appoint an expert committee headed by Thottathil Radhakrishnan, a former Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, to conduct field verification of the report.

Conclusion:

  • For a state sandwiched between mountains and sea, any attempt to change or fine-tune the ecological regulatory mechanism is bound to elicit a volley of protests.
  • In order to achieve long-term sustainable development, the states should act as trustees for the benefit of the general public in relation to natural resources.

February 2023
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