The state of Kerala recently petitioned the Supreme Court for a relaxation of its earlier order mandating a minimum 1 Km Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around all protected forests in the state, which sparked protests in the state.


What are the Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZ)?

  • Also known as Ecologically Fragile Areas (EFAs), these are areas in India notified by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) around Protected Areas, National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries.
  • The purpose of declaring ESZs —
    • To create some kind of shock absorbers to the protected areas by regulating and managing the activities around such areas.
    • To act as a transition zone from areas of high protection to areas involving lesser protection.
  • Statutory backing — Though the Environment Protection Act (EPA) 1986 does not mention the word “Eco-Sensitive Zones“, it has been effectively used by the government to declare ESZ.
  • Criteria for declaring ESZ —
    • Species Based (Endemism, Rarity, etc.)
    • Ecosystem Based (sacred groves, frontier forests etc.)
    • Geo-morphologic feature based (uninhabited islands, origins of rivers, etc.)
  • Extent of ESZ —
    • According to the Wildlife Conservation Strategy of 2002, an ESZ could extend up to 10 km around a protected area.
    • However, the distribution of an ESZ and the extent of control may not be consistent throughout the Protected Area.


What are the Supreme Court guidelines?

  • In 2022, the SC, while hearing a PIL to protect forest lands in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris, which was later expanded to cover the entire country, directed the following:
  • Mandatory 1-km ESZ — All states to have a mandatory 1-km ESZ from the demarcated boundaries of every protected forest land, national park and wildlife sanctuary.
  • Maintain status quo — If the existing ESZ goes beyond 1-km buffer zone or if any statutory instrument prescribes a higher limit, then such extended boundary shall prevail.
  • Scaling buffer zone — In case the question of the extent of buffer zone was pending a statutory decision, then the court’s direction to maintain the 1-km safety zone would be applicable until a final decision is arrived.
  • Prohibited activities — The court directed that no new permanent structure could come up for any purpose within an ESZ.
  • Compliance authority — The court vested the powers to ensure compliance with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and the Home Secretary of the State/UT. The PCCF was to make a list of all structures within the ESZs and report it to the SC within 3 months (that is not done yet).
  • Failure to adhere — The court also warned that in the event of any State/UT failing to submit a proposal, an area of 10 km would be considered as buffer zone in respect of such sanctuaries or national parks and restrictions would be imposed in those areas.
  • Exemption — The SC also noted maintaining uniform mandated 1km ESZ may not be possible and hence, directed the States to approach the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) and MoEFCC seeking relaxation as and when required in the public interest.


How the Kerala government responded to the SC order?

  • The Kerala State Assembly, soon after the SC order, unanimously passed a resolution urging the Central government to exempt the state’s human settlements, farmlands and public institutions from the scope of the ESZ.
  • It has also asked the Centre to issue notification by considering the State government’s proposals that marked the ESZ as zero around 10 protected areas of the State.
  • It also noted that the Zonal Master Plan for each ESZ as drafted by states earlier prohibited courts from taking cognisance of any offence related to ESZ, but SC 2022 guidelines became a virtually ‘one size fits all’ notification with overriding legislative authority.


Why is the SC guidelines so contentious in Kerala?

  • All the activities permitted in the ESZ can continue only if the PCCF grants permission, and that too within six months of the court’s order, but this period has already expired.
    • This has hence put the lives of local communities in the hands of the PCCF whose authority now extends beyond the forest to revenue lands falling within an ESZ.
  • The Kerala State Remote Sensing and Environment Centre (KSRSEC) identified a total area of 1,588.709 sq. km (29.65% of the geographical area of state) would come under ESZ, including residential and commercial buildings.
    • It also reported that 115 villages and 83 tribal settlements will comes under the ESZ of the State.
    • There are apprehensions related to their displacement and thus led to widespread unrest.
  • As per the 2011 census, the population density of Kerala comes to 860 people per sq. km and it is more than twice the population density of the country.
    • The mandatory ESZ along with the ban on permanent constructions will create “insurmountable difficulties” in the State.
  • Also, a large number of small and medium townships with human habitations and facilities have already been developed, over the past several decades, within the proposed buffer zone of 1 km from forests and it would be difficult to remove them all.


Way forward

  • ESZ should be decided on case-by-case basis considering population density, topographical features while addressing sentiments of locals and preventing misinformation campaign.
  • This ‘fortress conservation model’ for the Protected Areas needs to be negated by further empowering forest dwellers and Gram Sabha to conserve, protect and manage forests, wildlife and biodiversity lying within the traditional village boundaries over forest lands.
  • Here, the ‘community forest resource’ (CFR) – a new category of forests created under the Forest Rights Act 2006, should be the way ahead.


SourceThe Hindu


QUESTION – What is an ‘eco-sensitive zone’? Why the government of Kerala is protesting against the recent guidelines of the Supreme Court regarding the same? Discuss in brief.