Recently, the Kerala State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution urging the Central government to exempt the state’s human settlements, farmlands and public institutions from the scope of the Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ).

This is in response to a Supreme Court directive mandating an ESZ of at least one km from the boundary of every protected forest, including national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.


What are ‘Eco-sensitive zones’?

  • Eco-Sensitive Zone means the fragile area that exists within 10 kilometres of protected areas like National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries.
  • The width of the ESZ and type of regulation may vary from protected area to area. However, as a general principle, the width of the ESZ could go up to 10 kms around the protected area.
  • The purpose of marking an Eco-Sensitive Zone is to create a kind of shock-absorber around the protected areas.
  • The ESZ around protected areas are declared by the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
  • Extent of ESZ —
    • According to the Wildlife Conservation Strategy of 2002, an ESZ could extend up to 10 km around a protected area.
    • Furthermore, sensitive corridors, connectivity and biologically important patches that are critical for landscape linkage should be included in the Eco-Sensitive Zones if their width exceeds 10 km.
    • However, even within a Protected Area, the distribution of an ESZ and the extent of control may not be consistent throughout the Protected Area, and it may be of varying breadth and extent.


Prohibited activities

  • Commercial mining,
  • Stone quarrying,
  • Crushing units,
  • Tourism activities like flying over protected areas in an aircraft or hot air balloon,
  • Setting up industries that cause pollution,
  • Establishment of hydro-electric projects,
  • Commercial use of firewood,
  • Solid waste disposal or wastewater disposal, etc.


Permitted activities

  • Ongoing agriculture and horticulture practices by local communities,
  • Rainwater harvesting,
  • Organic farming,
  • Adoption of green technology and
  • Use of renewable energy sources.


Significance of ESZ

  • The basic aim is to regulate certain activities around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries so as to minimise the negative impacts of such activities on the fragile ecosystem encompassing the protected areas.
  • These areas act as “shock absorbersto the protected areas by regulating and managing the activities around such areas.
  • These zones act as a transition zone from areas of high protection to those involving lesser protection.
  • These areas help in minimising 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.


What did the Court say?

  • The Supreme Court directed that every protected forest, national park and wildlife sanctuary across the country should have a mandatory eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) of a minimum one km starting from their demarcated boundaries.
  • The State also has to act as a trustee for the benefit of the general public in relation to the natural resources so that sustainable development could be achieved in the long term.
  • The court held that in case any national park or protected forest already has 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 to maintain the one-km safety zone would be applicable until a final decision is arrived at under the law.
  • The court has also directed each State and the Union Territory to make a list of subsisting structures within the ESZs and submit reports to the apex court in three months.


Why is the ESZ notification so contentious in Kerala?

  • What worries the State is the possible impact of the apex court’s order on its unique landscape.
  • Nearly 30% of Kerala is forested land and the Western Ghats (WG) occupies 48% of the State.
  • Also, there is the network of lakes and canals and wetlands and the 590-km-long coastline, which are all governed by a series of environmental conservation and protection legislations.
  • This leaves little space for its 3.5 crore population with an average population density of 900 persons per square km (much higher than the national average).
  • According to the State Assembly’s resolution, the demographic pressure on the available land is unusually high in the State.
  • In this context, the SC’s notification will harm the State’s interests while also disrupting the lives of millions of people who live near protected areas.