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Furore in Forests

A June 3 apex court order that all protected forest tracts and wildlife sanctuaries should have eco-sensitive zones of one kilometre from their boundaries has led to protests in Kerala. It is now thinking of bypassing the order

The Kerala government has decided to file a modification petition in the apex court in connection with the Court’s June 3 order that said all protected forest tracts and wildlife sanctuaries in the country should have eco-sensitive zones (ESZs) of one kilometre from their boundaries. With Kerala having 24 wildlife sanctuaries, the proposal has raised concern among lakhs of individuals dwelling inside such areas, especially farmers living along the Western Ghats.

After a high-level meeting convened by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, an official communication from his office said that the advocate-general had been entrusted with looking into whether the state can make legislation in this regard to bypass the apex court directive.

This comes amid rising protests that every human settlement be exempted from the proposed ESZ rule. The protesting farmers have been backed by both the ruling CPM and the Opposition Congress.

The issue came into focus recently after the ruling CPM’s students wing, the SFI, vandalised Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s office in Wayanad in protest against “his inaction’’ to allay the people’s fears in the matter. The Opposition has blamed the CPM for the present crisis. Opposition leader VD Satheesan said the government had failed to apprise the Supreme Court of the state’s concerns. The earlier Congress-led government of Oommen Chandy had decided to avoid all human habitats from ESZs, he said, adding that in 2019, the Left Democratic Front government had decided to create buffer zones of one kilometre from the boundaries of protected forests. Had the government decided to altogether avoid human settlements from the buffer zone, the state would not have faced the present situation, Satheesan said, after the Opposition walked out of the assembly.

The authorities are now determined to take up the state’s issues with central authorities, in addition to the Central Empowered Committee (CEC). Details of the existing civic infrastructure and construction activities within the ESZs will be furnished before the apex court. Besides, a draft notification demanding that human settlements be exempted from the zone rule shall be submitted to the centre.

On June 3, a three-judge bench of the apex court in its order said that national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and such protected forests must have an ESZ of a minimum 1-km from their boundaries. The Court said the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MEF & CC) in 2011, which have either banned or regulated a bunch of activities within ESZs, should be strictly adhered to.

The proceedings that led to this order originated from a 1995 PIL moved by TN Godavarman Thirumulpad, a native of Nilambur in Kerala’s Malappuram. He sought protection of forest lands in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, the scope of that writ petition was enlarged by the Court to protect such natural resources throughout the country.

The apex court held that in case any national park or protected forest already had a buffer zone extending beyond one km, that would prevail. In case the question of the extent of buffer zone was pending a statutory decision, then the Court’s direction of a one-km safety zone would be applicable until a final decision is arrived at under the law. The Court directed that “mining within the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries shall not be permitted”. It further directed that no permanent structure will be allowed within the ESZ. If the existing ESZ goes beyond the 1-km buffer zone or if any statutory instrument prescribes a higher limit, then such extended boundary shall prevail, it said.

A set of guidelines for declaration of ESZs around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries was formulated by MoEF&CC on February 9, 2011. In the present order, the Court held that these guidelines were “reasonable”.

The following were the directions issued:

(a) Each protected forest that is a national park or wildlife sanctuary must have an ESZ of a minimum one kilometre measured from the demarcated boundary of such protected forest in which the activities proscribed and prescribed in the guidelines of February 9, 2011, shall be strictly adhered to. For Jamwa Ramgarh wildlife sanctuary (Rajasthan), it shall be 500 m so far as subsisting activities are concerned.

(b) In the event that the ESZ goes beyond the one kilometre buffer zone, the wider margin as ESZ shall prevail. If such a wider zone is proposed under any statutory instrument and is awaiting final decision, till then the ESZ shall be maintained.

(c) The principal chief conservator of forests as also the home secretary of each state and Union Territory shall be responsible for proper compliance of the Guidelines. The former shall also arrange to make a list of subsisting structures and other relevant details within the respective ESZs and a report shall be furnished before the Court within three months. For this purpose, such authority shall be entitled to take assistance of any governmental agency for satellite imaging or photography using drones.

(d) Mining within the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries shall not be permitted.

(e) In case any activity is already being undertaken within the one kilometre of the ESZ, as the case may be, of any wildlife sanctuary or national park, these continue with the permission of the principal chief conservator of forests of each state or UT and the person responsible for such activities shall obtain the necessary permission within six months. Such permission shall be given once the principal chief conservator of forests is satisfied that the activities do not come within the prohibited list and were continuing prior to passing of the order in a legitimate manner. No new permanent structure shall be permitted.

(f) The minimum width of the ESZ may be diluted in overwhelming public interest but for that purpose the state or UT shall approach the CEC and MoEF&CC and both these bodies shall give their respective opinions/recommendations before this Court. On that basis, the Court shall pass an appropriate order.

(g) In the event the CEC, MoEF&CC, the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife or any other body of persons or individual having a special interest in environmental issues considers it necessary for maintaining a wider or larger ESZ in respect of any national park or wildlife sanctuary, he/they shall approach the CEC. In such a situation the CEC shall be at liberty to examine the need of a wider ESZ in consultation with all stakeholders, including the state or UT concerned, MoEF&CC and the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife and then approach this Court with its recommendations.

(h) As for those sanctuaries or national parks for which the proposal of a state or UT has not been given, the 10-km buffer zone as ESZ, as indicated in the order passed by the Court on December 4, 2006, in the case of Goa Foundation (supra) and also contained in the Guidelines shall be implemented. Within that area, the entire set of restrictions concerning an ESZ shall operate till a final decision is arrived at.

—By Adarsh Kumar and India Legal Bureau

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