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 The Conflict Behind Eco-Sensitive Zones

Context:

Ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ) are intended to safeguard ‘protected areas’ — 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 provoked protests in Kerala and some other regions, in a precursor to what is likely to emerge in other parts of the country.

Relevance:

GS III: Environment and Ecology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What are protected areas?
  2. Implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA)
  3. Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs)
  4. Problem with ESZs in Scheduled Areas
  5. What has led to the protests?

What are protected areas?

  • Protected areas cover 5.26% of India’s land area as 108 national parks and 564 wildlife sanctuaries. They are notified under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972.
  • Protected areas do away with even those activities permitted in ‘reserve forests’, where the rights of forest-dependent communities — those residing on and/or accessing forest land — are extinguished, unless specifically allowed.
  • However, this rights-negating ‘fortress conservation model’, has come under repeated criticism from conservation scientists, bringing in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 which is also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
    • FRA recognises the customary and traditional rights (both individual and collective) of forest-dwellers on forest land, including in protected areas.

Implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA)

Overview of FRA implementation
  • FRA was enacted to undo historic injustice done to the forest dwelling community of India.
  • The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) estimated that it would mean handing over at least 4 lakh sq. km of India’s notified forest area to village-level institutions.
  • As of June 2022, only 64,873.70 sq. km, or 16%, has come under the FRA.
  • This has been achieved in a decade and a half, compared to no improvements in the six decades before.
Role of Gram Sabhas
  • Gram Sabhas have taken over the power to determine rights through open democratic process from government officials.
  • They are now the statutory authorities empowered to conserve, protect and manage forests, wildlife and biodiversity lying within 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.

Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs)

  •  Eco Sensitive Zones are fragile areas around protected areas declared by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
  • They are areas notified by the MoEFCC around Protected Areas, National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. • The purpose of declaring ESZs is to create some kind of “shock absorbers” to the protected areas by regulating and managing the activities around such areas.
  • Among activities prohibited in the eco-sensitive zone are hydroelectric projects, brick kilns, commercial use of firewood and discharge of untreated effluents in natural water bodies or land areas.
  • No new commercial hotels and resorts shall be permitted within 1 km of the boundary of the protected area or up to the extent of the eco-sensitive zone, whichever is nearer, except for small temporary structures for eco-tourism activities.
Overview of ESZs in India
  • 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.
  • The extent of ESZs from the boundary of a protected area ranges from 0 to as much as 45.82 km (in Pin Valley National Park, Himachal Pradesh). Fifteen States have ESZs exceeding 10 km.

Problem with ESZs in Scheduled Areas

  • Significantly, parts of the ESZs in ten States — Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Telangana — fall within the Scheduled Areas notified under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.
  • Such Scheduled Areas cover over 11% of the country’s land area and are thickly forested and mountainous.
  • They are preponderantly 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 recognises habitation-level gram sabhas to be competent to safeguard and preserve community resources on forest and revenue lands in Scheduled Areas.
  • However, the MoEFCC has shown no 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.

What has led to the protests?

Supreme Court’s Directions on Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs)
  • The Court stated that MoEFCC guidelines must be implemented in areas proposed in draft notifications and within a 10 km radius of yet-to-be-proposed protected areas.
  • States were given the authority to increase or decrease the minimum width of ESZs.
  • Powers were given to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and Home Secretary of the State/UT to ensure compliance with guidelines.
  • PCCF was to make a list of all structures within the ESZs and report it to the Supreme Court within three months.
  • Court ordered that no new permanent structure could come up for any purpose within an ESZ.
Impact of the Court’s Directions
  • All activities permitted by guidelines can only continue if PCCF grants permission, within 6 months of court’s order.
  • This period has already expired and has led to protests in Kerala.
  • Banned structures include electric poles, buildings, walls, roads, and bridges.
  • Millions of forest-dwellers living on forest land and on the fringes of forests are most affected.
  • After being denied forest rights, they are now also denied better public infrastructure.
  • The government and the judiciary need to reconcile laws, reaffirm democratic governance, and protect the environment.

-Source: The Hindu


February 2023
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