The conflict behind eco-sensitive zones

Source– The post is based on the article “The conflict behind eco-sensitive zones” published in The Hindu on 19th January 2023.

Syllabus: GS3- Environment conservation

Relevance– Issues related to protected areas

News– The article explains the concept of protected areas and ESZ. It explains the issues related to the concept of ESZ. It also tells about the reason for recent protests in Kerala due to creation of these zones.

What are protected areas?

Protected areas cover 5.26% of India’s land area as 108 national parks and 564 wildlife sanctuaries. They are notified under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972. Protected areas do away with even the activities permitted in ‘reserve forests’

The rights of forest-dependent communities are impacted. Therefore, this conservation model has come under repeated criticism from conservation scientists.

It led to the bringing of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. FRA recognizes the customary and traditional rights of forest-dwellers on forest land, including in protected areas.

How is the FRA being implemented?

FRA was an attempt to undo the historic injustice done to the forest-dwelling community of India. The MoEFCC reckoned in 2009  that it needs to hand over at least four lakh sq. km to village-level institutions. But as of June 2022, only 16% has come under the FRA.

However, this has been achieved in only a decade and a half. This is attributed to the gram sabhas which took over the power to determine rights through open democratic process from government officials.

These gram sabhas are now the statutory authorities empowered to conserve, protect and manage forests, and wildlife lying within the traditional village boundaries.

These areas under gram sabhas come under a new category of forests called ‘community forest resource’ (CFR). Gram sabhas have to integrate their CFR conservation and management plan into the working plan of the Forest Department, with the required modifications.

What are ESZs?

What are the issues with ESZ?

Significantly, parts of the ESZs in ten States fall within the Scheduled Areas notified under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. They are mostly populated by Scheduled Tribe groups.

The Provisions of the PESA Act, 1996 apply in these areas. The PESA recognises gram sabhas competence to safeguard and preserve community resources on forest and revenue lands in Scheduled Areas.

However, the MoEFCC has shown no inclination to amend the Indian Forest Act 1927, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 to comply with the PESA and FRA.

How exactly were the ESZs implemented?

In 2005, the National Board for Wildlife decided to delineate site-specific ESZs to regulate specific activities instead of prohibiting them. In May 2005, the MoEFCC asked the States and UTs to propose ESZs.

The MoEFCC guidelines for ESZs stated that a committee consisting of the Wildlife Warden, an ecologist, and an official from the local government will determine the extent of each ESZ. It will be based on the forest rangers’ inventory of land-use and wildlife corridors within 10 km of each protected area.

The Chief Wildlife Warden was to then list the activities that were to be prohibited, restricted and permitted.

After this process, the State government would submit this list, the geographical description of the area and the biodiversity values, the rights and entitlements of local communities, and their economic potential and implications for their livelihoods, as a proposal to the MoEFCC for notification.

Within two years of notification, the State government is required to draft a Zonal Master Plan for each ESZ in consultation with a number of departments.

State government has to set up a monitoring committee for each ESZ to monitor compliance with the various provisions of each notification. The committee is required to report the actions taken to the Chief Wildlife Warden every year.

The guidelines and the ESZ notifications disregarded many legal facts and statutory requirements. They set aside the gram sabhas in Scheduled Area and CFR forests and the Panchayati-raj institutions. It follows a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

What has led to the protests?

In June, 2022, the Supreme Court gave further directions on ESZs. Court said that the MoEFCC guidelines are also to be implemented in the area proposed in the draft notification awaiting finalisation and within a 10-km radius of yet-to-be-proposed protected areas.

The Court also allowed States to increase or decrease the minimum width of ESZs. It vested the powers to ensure compliance with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and the Home Secretary of the State.

The PCCF was to make a list of all structures within the ESZs and report it to the Supreme Court within three months. The Court also ordered that no new permanent structure could come up for any purpose within an ESZ.

This effectively meant that all the activities can continue only if the PCCF grants permission. The Court’s directions have put the lives of many people in the hands of the PCCF. Its  authority now extends beyond the forest to revenue lands falling within an ESZ.

The new structures that are banned could include electric poles, buildings, walls, roads and bridges. Millions of forest-dwellers living on forest land and on the fringes of forests are the most affected.

 

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