Habitations, plantations and agricultural areas in the 123 villages falling within the Western Ghat eco-sensitive area would be taken out of the protective zone, as demanded by Kerala government. The Union environment and forests ministry announced this on Tuesday, a day ahead of the expected declaration of the poll schedule and code of conduct by the Election Commission.
Ceding to the political pressure that had been building up in the coastal state for months, the environment ministry announced, “The (Kerala) state government is of the view that agricultural lands, plantations and habitations may be kept out of the ESAs. Recommendations of the State Government were examined by the MoEF and it has been decided to accept these recommendations in respect of Kerala, regarding ESA boundaries.”
In order to seem even handed with all states on the matter, the environment ministry also opened the space for the rest 5 states to approach the Centre with similar demands. The environment ministry said, “It has also been decided that the MoEF will consider recommendations of the other States in Western Ghats region based on similar on-ground exercise if such proposals are forwarded to the MoEF within 60 days of issuance of the draft Notification.”
The environment ministry had earlier in November 2013 passed two orders for implementing the Kasturirangan panel report on western ghats. One of the order accepted the report in principle and said a formal ‘draft notification’ demarcating the exact geographical boundaries of the Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 would be put out for comments shortly. Under the law the draft notification would have been open for comments for a period of 2 months before it was finally notified after making amendments that the Centre may accept based on inputs.
In a parallel second order the environment ministry banned with immediate effect any environmental clearance panel, either at the Centre or in the six states, from entertaining proposals for new polluting industries, mining, thermal power plants or large construction projects in the listed villages of the states which were to fall within the ESA. This second order had not been withdrawn till Tuesday evening when the press release claiming a revised boundary for the ESA was sent out by the ministry.
While the environment ministry’s November order had specifically mentioned that agricultural, rural livelihood and plantation practices were not to be banned in the ESA, that did not assuage sentiments of powerful sections in Kerala which also found political support building pressure on the UPA government in Delhi to step back.
While the new environment minister Mr Veerrapa Moily did make initial noise in favour of easing the orders, the ministry was in a bind in an on-going case in the National Green Tribunal on the Western Ghats report. The tribunal had warned that any complete withdrawal of the orders could lead to implementation of the Madhav Gadgil report on Western Ghats, which recommended a far wider areas in the 6 states and stricter regulations than the Kasturirangan panel.
In its last hearing the tribunal gave the environment ministry a month to take a clear stance on the issue and report back. Unlike the Gadgil committee report, the Kasturirangan panel had demarcated ‘cultural landscapes’ from ‘natural landscapes’ reducing the proposed protected area from to 60,000 square kilometres. The Kasturirangan panel had kept these cultural landscapes – area with high population density out stating, “Close to 60 per cent of the Western Ghats region is under cultural landscape — human dominated land use of settlements, agriculture and plantations.” But this did not still find acceptance with lobbies in Kerala.
The environment ministry while issuing the press release on Tuesday did not put out the draft notification for ESA stating it would be done subsequently. Specific changes that it may possibly have made in the nature of restrictions as well as the specific areas proposed for the protective zone remained unknown/ The ministry only said, ” The Ministry is now in the process of issuance of draft Notification which among other things will include the demarcation and boundaries of Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs), as identified by the High Level Working Group (Kasturirangan panel), seeking comments of various stakeholders.”
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