SC modifies order on Ecologically Sensitive Zones around protected forests 

Context: The Supreme Court modified its judgment to have mandatory Eco sensitive zones (ESZ) of a minimum one kilometre around protected forests, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the country.

What is the concept of Ecologically sensitive zone (ESZ)?

  • The 2002 Wildlife Conservation Strategy envisaged lands within 10 km of the boundaries of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries to be notified as ecologically fragile zones under Section 3(2)(v) of the Environment Protection Act 1986.
  • Ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ) are intended to protect ‘protected areas’ – national parks and wildlife sanctuaries – by transitioning from an area of lower protection to an area of higher protection. 
  • ESZs are effectively insulating layers where humans and nature can be at peace with each other.
  • Thus they act as a buffer and ‘shock absorber’ to the protected areas.
  • Besides, in order to protect the biodiversity in areas having ecological significance, Ministry also notifies Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA), which has unique biological resources, which require special attention for their conservation.
  • The MoEFCC was to take steps to protect the environment by regulating and (if required) prohibiting industries, operations and processes. 

What is the procedure to notify ESZ?

  • Survey and identification of ESZs are conducted by the respective State Governments for consideration of the Central Government as per the guidelines formulated by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). 
  • On the basis of proposals and recommendations of the State Government, Ministry notifies the ESZs under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. 
  • Section ‘3’ of the ESZ Notification provides the Guidelines for preparation of the Zonal Master Plan (ZMP) by the respective State Government and mandates preparation of the Tourism Master Plan forming part of Zonal Master Plan on the basis of the Carrying Capacity study of the concerned ESZ. 

Evolution of the ESZ in India:

  • 2002 – Wildlife Conservation Strategy envisaged lands within 10 km of the boundaries of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries to be notified as ecologically fragile zones under Section 3(2)(v) of the Environment Protection Act 1986 .
  • 2005 – National Board for Wildlife decided to delineate site-specific ESZs to regulate specific activities instead of prohibiting them. So it asked the States and UTs to propose ESZs. 
  • 2006 – Supreme Court directed the MoEFCC to have the States’ and UTs’ proposals submitted within four weeks.
  • 2010 – No guidelines by MoEFCC. Supreme court intervened. 
  • 2011 – Guidelines by MoEFCC came:
    • A committee consisting of the Wildlife Warden, an ecologist, and an official from the local government was to determine the extent of each ESZ, the nature of environmental concerns to be addressed and ways to address them
    • The Chief Wildlife Warden was to then list the activities that were to be prohibited, to be restricted with safeguards and to be permitted.
    • Finally, the state government would submit this, the geographical description of the area and the biodiversity values, the rights and entitlements of local communities, and their economic potential and implications for their livelihoods, as a proposal to the MoEFCC for notification.
    • To monitor compliance with the various provisions of each notification, a State had to set up a monitoring committee for each ESZ; headed by the District Collector as the chairperson.
  • 2012 – ESZ notification began.

What was the recent Supreme court order?

  • The court said that the MoEFCC guidelines are also to be implemented in the area proposed in the draft notification awaiting finalisation and within a 10-km radius of yet-to-be-proposed protected areas. 
  • It mandated a minimum 1-km eco-sensitive zone around national parks or wildlife sanctuaries
  • The Court also allowed States to increase or decrease the minimum width of ESZs in the public interest.
  • Court vested the powers to ensure compliance with the guidelines with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and the Home Secretary of the State/UT.
  • The court also ordered that no new permanent structure could come up for any purpose within an ESZ.
  • All the activities permitted by the guidelines and which are already being carried out can continue only if the PCCF grants permission, and that too within six months of the court’s order. This period has already expired.

What is the issue now?

  • These court’s directions have put the lives of many people in the hands of the PCCF. Several concerns were sparked regarding the habitation falling under the ESZ zone. There rights are also protected under Forest rights act 2006 and PESA act 1996.
  • If no permanent construction is to be permitted for any purpose, a villager who is desirous to reconstruct his house would not be permitted.
  • Similarly, if the government decides to construct schools, dispensaries, anganwadi and other basic structures for improvement of the life of the villagers, the same would also not be permitted.”

What is the modified order?

  • 2022 order will not be applicable to ESZs in respect to which draft and final notifications have been issued by the MoEFCC, and where proposals for such notifications have been received by the ministry.
  • It will also not be applicable where the national parks and sanctuaries are located on inter-state borders or share common boundaries.
  • But it underlined that no mining would be allowed, either within national parks and sanctuaries or in a 1-km radius.

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