Ecologically (In)sensitive Areas

When the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issued a notification in February, 2014 for an Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) for Sikkim’s Khangchendzonga National Park—considered one of the most important protected areas in the Himalayas—it defied its own guidelines which call for ESZs to be a shock absorber for national parks and sanctuaries.  Khangchendzonga’s ESZ spanned a mere 25 to 200 metres from the park boundary, and like other parks in Sikkim—with equally miniscule ‘protective’ zones, it aimed to accommodate the state’s  ambitious hydel dream, rather than safeguard the ecology of the Protected Areas.

While one understands that a small state like Sikkim cannot afford the 10 km ESZ that is advised, it is unacceptable that ESZs have been deliberately manipulated to circumvent wildlife clearances for hydel projects. Particularly so, in light of a recent National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) report which points out that at least five dams were being constructed in close proximity to national parks and sanctuaries in the state between 2006 and 2011 without mandatory NBWgoa  miningL permission—and asks for a probe into the same.

Unfortunately, the Khangchendzonga fiasco is being replicated across many of India’s 600 odd Protected Areas (PAs)—though there are a few noteworthy exceptions.

According to a Supreme Court Order in 2006, no major industry or infrastructure project can be allowed within 10 km boundary of national parks and sanctuaries unless approved by the Standing Committee of the NBWL—unless and until a site specific ESZ has been notified by the state. In an ESZ,  mining, hydel projects and heavily polluting industries are banned, while tourism, cutting of trees, electric power lines, etc are regulated.  Few states enacted the apex court order, delayed demarcating these safety zones till a deadline was issued on December 31, 2012 by the MoEF.

Currently about 400 such ESZs are being reviewed by the centre, but the exercise, aimed to protect ecology, environment and local livelihoods, appears to have been reduced to a sham.  Worried about how the process would hit ‘development’ and reportedly under pressure from mining and industry lobbies, most states have excluded several ecologically important areas around PAs, thereby defeating the very purpose of the ESZ. Worse, the Centre seems to be colluding with the states in this process, so that development projects can bypass the mandatory wildlife clearance. Taking note of this, members of the NBWL’s Standing Committee, pointed out in a meeting that “the methodology of selection of many ESZs appears to be arbitrary, and at times, influenced by factors other than ecological” and pressed for “a careful oversight mechanism.” Yet, the process has been opaque, with negligible involvement of ecologists, conservationists or scientists outside of the government either at the state or at the centre.

A case in point is the two kilometre wide ESZ of Andhra Pradesh’s Pulicat Bird Sanctuary, which was steered through in a hurry to accommodate the upcoming Dugarajapatnam port, and thereby circumvent the wildlife ‘hurdle’. This, despite the fact that in 2007, the state’s chief wildlife warden had recommended a 10km ESZ for Pulicat, the second largest brackish water ecosystem in India and also a proposed Ramsar site. Lakhs of migratory waterfowl throng the lake in winter. The port and ship building centre will lead to massive dredging and development of ancillary industries will gravely damage the fragile ecosystem of the lake.  According to reports, a portion of the land from the 5,300 acres proposed for acquisition for the port is actually located within the northern boundary of the Pulicat lake and in its vicinity. Being a thriving wetland ecosystem, Pulicat also sustains the livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk with 46 villages depending on the lake directly or indirectly for their livelihood. Representatives of the Human Rights Forum, who visited the site, allege that  “the ESZ has been made with the intention of facilitating statutory clearances for the proposed port.”

Another such ill-conceived ESZ is of Gujarat’s Velavadar National Park (in the Bhal region), home to the critically endangered and endemic lesser florican, Indian wolf and blackbucks, among other rare grassland fauna. It is also the world’s largest roosting ground for Montagu’s harriers. The park itself is small, just about 35 sq km, and much of its wildlife––cranes, blackbucks, wolves, foxes etc––use the adjoining grasslands and fields for denning and feeding. Velvadar and the larger Bhal landscape––the wheat bowl of the state––are threatened by the proposed Dholera Special Investment Region (DSIR), reportedly a flagship project of the Chief Minister. The DSIR is being touted as a “global manufacturing and trading hub,”  and is envisaged to set up various industries including heavily polluting chemical factories, power project, highways, airport, business hubs, etc. Such mega-scale activity will not just destroy the park, but also stands to obliterate nearly 1,000 sq km of fertile farmland with no less than 15,000 families dependent on it. Predictably, the proposed ESZ carefully circumvents the DSIR while leaving out many ecologically fragile areas which are the feeding grounds of the harriers and lesser floricans. The Environment Impact Assessment report of the DSIR states that “the park is situated just to the south of DSIR boundary almost about 600 away…” and goes on to note the presence of wolf and fox dens in the area. It concludes that blackbucks are distributed in half of the villages coming under the DSIR.

Scant regard has been paid to local sentiments as well. For instance, there has been strong public sentiment against hydel projects in Sikkim, as the dams are expected to drown sacred landscapes in West Sikkim which is believed to be the cradle of the erstwhile Buddhist Kingdom. Nor do consequences matter—as witnessed in the tragedy of Uttarakhand floods or the 2011 Sikkim earthquake, which according to some studies, could have been induced or triggered by the presence of multiple dams on the river Teesta and its tributaries.”

What has dictated ESZs instead, are interests other than ecological. For instance, The ESZ proposal for Karlapat Wildlife Sanctuary in Kalahandi, Orissa, was limited to just one kilometre on one side due to bauxite deposits here which mining giant Vedanta is said to be eying—after it was denied Niyamgiri. Kuldiha’s (Orissa) safety zone was reduced, reportedly at the intervention of the CM—and at the behest of the mining, industries and revenue departments, in consideration of the stone quarries in the area. This, even when wildlife officials pointed out that by prioritising the quarries and crushers  frequently used migratory paths of elephants (and tigers) between Kuldiha and Similipal Tiger Reserve were being sacrificed. This entire area, including the quarries, lie within the Similipal Biosphere Reserve and Mayurbhanj Elephant Reserve.

In Jharkhand, too, it was largely the writ of the mining industry that dictated the ESZs. The Telegraph reports that in 2011, steel major, Tata wrote to the Centre asking for the ESZ of Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary to be halved from the 10 km proposed by the state, citing “fears of adverse effects on its industrial activities.” Two years later in January 2013, a senior official of Tata Steel again appealed to the Centre to reduce the safety zone to a mere 500 m, a move resisted  by concerned forest officers who called this demand “unreasonable, and not in the interest of protecting the park’s biodiversity.”

This was an opportunity—to plan land use and development in the notified zones, so that it protects environment and ecosystems, ensuring livelihoods, and taking into account development concerns. All of which were to be done in a planned manner,  a concerted effort of all concerned departments.  But  the concept has been misunderstood, manipulated. Indeed, it needs reminding that ESZ stands to safeguard Ecologically Fragile Zones, not Economic Special Zones.

An slightly edited version of this article appeared in The Pioneer on 9th April, 2014


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