Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZs) or Ecologically Fragile Areas (EFAs) are areas notified by the MoEFCC around Protected Areas, National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries. ESZs are created as “shock absorbers” for the protected areas, to minimize the negative impact on the “fragile ecosystems” by certain human activities taking place nearby. Furthermore, these areas are meant to act as a transition zone from areas requiring higher protection to those requiring lesser protection. The Supreme has recently ordered the establishment of 1-km Eco-Sensitive Zones around all protected areas, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.
- Minimize the impact of urbanization and other developmental activities
- ESZs help in in-situ conservation, which deals with conservation of an endangered species in its natural habitat, for example the conservation of the One-horned Rhino of Kaziranga National Park, Assam.
- Minimize Forest Depletion and Man-Animal Conflict
- The protected areas are based on the core and buffer model of management, through which local area communities are also protected and benefitted. Many tribal groups, for e.g the Lepchas of Sikkim will significantly benefit by the demarcation of ESGs.
However, there are many issues associated with ESGs and one-size fits all approach of 1km demarcation. They are:
- They create abrupt changes in the lives of local inhabitants who have been living there for years. This is the reason that the high range areas of Kerala, particularly areas in Idukki, Wayanad, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts, had been witnessing hartals by various farmer groups. This was because the villagers occupying the densely populated settlements in these areas believe that the ESZ would restrict their agricultural and related activities.
- The ESG boundary would encompass many habitations and important cities; and would adversely affect the developmental works. All around, such areas have thick rural settlements and are even urbanised in some cases. “Take the case of Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai which has IIT on one side, and a colony on the other side within a 1 km area. Hence, the direction is not feasible in several parts of the country,”
- Across the country, there are about 106 national parks and 565 wildlife sanctuaries that will get affected by the current regulation. The agency to look into this should not be the forest department but local bodies .
- Rehabilitation of people affected by ESGs is tough in most of the places.
ESZ marginalize local interests and would prove detrimental to conservation in the long run. A one-size fits all approach cannot be taken for a country like ours which has such a great level of geographical and environmental diversity.In the state of Kerala, for example, where major protests have been seen, “The total extent of the wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala is eight lakh acres. If one-km of ESZ is demarcated from their boundaries, around 4 lakh acres of human settlements, including farmlands, would come within that purview. This is a matter of sheer survival of lakhs of people.” He added that wildlife should be protected based on ecological sensitivity levels of each area.
There is a need for rethinking on the impacts of the environmental policies at the local level, the type and prospects of local participation and most importantly the prospects of alternate income generating opportunities for successful conservation initiatives.