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A conservation strategy

Print edition : Jun 20, 2003 T+T-
A view of the forests of Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra, which constitute an area that was declared ecologically sensitive in 2001.-ASHISH KOTHARI

A view of the forests of Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra, which constitute an area that was declared ecologically sensitive in 2001.-ASHISH KOTHARI

The use of the concept of Ecologically Sensitive Areas/Ecologically Fragile Areas together with the Environment (Protection) Act is gradually gaining recognition as a strategy for the conservation and sustainable development of sensitive areas.

THE legislative framework in India has attempted to create several legal spaces for the protection of fragile ecosystems. Unfortunately, many of these legal spaces remain far removed from the possibilities of use by concerned citizens on account of their complicated language and presentation. Inaccessibility to legislation is also a big impediment. It is crucial that these legal spaces for conservation are demystified and the skills of using them are shared with communities and environmental groups. Slowly but effectively, this process has begun, and today a number of groups that work on environmental issues make optimum use of the available legal spaces.

One example is the use of Section 3(2)v of the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA), 1986, and Section 5(1) of the Environment (Protection) Rules (EPR), 1986. These clauses give the Central government the power to restrict "industries, operations, or processes or class of industries" on "the basis of considerations like the biological diversity of an area". The government and non-governmental sectors have used these clauses to highlight the sensitivity of a region and thus grant it a special status, "to protect and improve quality of the environment". In the more recent instances, these areas have been called Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs) or Ecologically Fragile Areas (EFAs).

ONE of the earliest recorded instances of the effective use of these clauses was in 1989, as seen in the categorisation of industrial activity in Doon Valley in Uttaranchal. The notification first specified that any mining, tourism and grazing activity and other types of land use can be taken up in the valley only after the management plans were drawn up by the State departments concerned and these were approved by the Central government. It categorised industries as Red, Green and Orange on the basis of the extent of pollution they may cause and its impact on the valley.

The same year, Murud-Janjira in Maharashtra was notified under the same clause. The objective was to protect the fragile coastal ecology and the historical heritage of Murud-Janjira, which is the site of the palace of the Nawab of Murud; the Janjira caves; and the fort of Janjira built by the Siddis. Constructed on the sea, the massive fort is of immense historical importance. The notification prohibited the location of industries in certain areas along the coast. This was a crucial measure for the region's protection as the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification had not been issued then.

In 1991, the CRZ notification was issued, with the same clauses as in the EPA. This move marked a radical change in the use of these clauses as the entire coastline of India was brought within the sweep of one notification, while earlier, small pockets were considered separately.

On June 30, 1991, Dahanu taluk in Maharashtra was declared an EFA. The notification in that case had a set of guidelines for locating industries. The Maharashtra government was directed to prepare a Master Plan or a Regional Plan for the taluk. There were a few other restrictions on industrial expansion, including a 25-km buffer zone around the outer boundary of the taluk which is to be free of industries.

In 1992, it was the turn of a stretch of the Aravalli mountain ranges in Rajasthan and Haryana. The notification came in response to demands from the local people and environmentalists to prohibit the mining activity that caused massive environmental degradation in the northern Aravallis. The Aravallis, the natural physical barrier between the Thar desert and the rest of the country, had to be granted protection in order to curb the detrimental impact of mining. The Central government prohibited a number of processes and operations, except with its prior permission.

In northeastern India, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas proposed a petroleum refinery at Numaligarh, on the eastern side of the Kaziranga National Park (KNP) in Assam. The park is home to three-fourths of the global population of the one-horned rhinoceros and the largest single concentration of endangered wild animals such as the swamp deer, the wild buffalo, elephants, tigers and Gangetic dolphins. A notification issued in 1996 declared an area of 15 sq km around the Numaligarh refinery a "No Development Zone" in order to limit the pollution levels.

Four years later, in late 2000, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) proposed a notification to protect the unique environment of the Himalayas. The proposed notification put forward certain restrictions and conditions for all future activities in order to "ensure environmentally sound development of hill towns... in the areas in the Himalayan region." The notification emphasised location planning in urban areas in the hills, rainwater harvesting and stable hill roads, all to protect the environment and people of these regions.

In the subsequent years, a sustained campaign by environmentalists resulted in the declaration of Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani (2001) and Matheran (2002) in Maharashtra as ESAs. Both these areas had been experiencing the impact of large-scale, unplanned tourism and related development. In both cases, the Supreme Court ordered, among other things, the preparation of a zonal master plan for the area, by the State government, and the appointment of a monitoring committee.

For the last four years, a group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and academics have been carrying on a campaign to have a 7,350-sq km stretch of the Western Ghats covering parts of north Karnataka, Goa and south Maharashtra declared as the Sahyadri Ecologically Sensitive Area (SESA). The boundaries have been defined and the proposal, as per a specified format, has been presented to the MoEF.

ESAs have the potential to become one of the most innovative and effective manifestations of the EPA/EPR. In 2000, ESAs got a formal status when a comprehensive set of guidelines laying down parameters and criteria for declaring ESAs was approved. A committee constituted by the MoEF put together detailed criteria based on which an area can be declared ecologically sensitive. These criteria are species based (endemism, rarity, and so on), ecosystem based (sacred groves, frontier forests, and so on) and geomorphological-feature-based (uninhabited islands, points of origin of rivers, and so on).

Declaring an area an ESA allows for planning by taking into account the livelihoods of the people living in and around such an area. The planning and management of an area notified as an ESA can include the effective participation of local communities. The notification can be based on local needs and priorities on the one hand and sustainable use of natural resources on the other.

The concept also takes into account the fact that protection of the environment sometimes cannot be within regional and State boundaries, as was demonstrated by the CRZ notification.

There are several other advantages that ESA status offers:

1. The notification can allow for planned development and land-use for that particular area. Thus industrial and developmental activities can be regulated on the basis of local priorities.

2. It extends to any kind of ecosystem, such as coasts, forests, plains and islands.

3. It allows for the formation of committees at the level of districts and taluks, with representation to local people besides researchers and members of the agencies concerned to look into the enforcement of the notification. One example of this is the Dahanu Taluka Environmental Protection Authority (DTEPA),

4. All other provisions under the EPA, including the Environment Impact Assessment notification, Hazardous Waste Handling Rules, Siting Rules, and so on are still applicable (wherever relevant) to an ESA/EFA.

5. In relation to biosphere reserves, ESAs seem to be more effective in ensuring protection as they have recognition within the legal framework as against the former, which does not have legal backing. The guidelines of the MoEF on biosphere reserves mainly focus on scientific research and the monitoring of the biodiversity in the region.

The concept of an ecologically sensitive area is gaining support also from other processes and conservation efforts. For example, the committee for drafting a national wildlife action plan has recommended that an area of 10 to 25 sq km around protected areas, biosphere reserves and heritage sites be considered ESAs. The Final Wildlife Action Plan also contains some relevant recommendations.

AS of today, there is little monitoring of the implementation of many of these notifications. Also, modifications are being proposed for a few. Groups and individuals working on coastal issues are disturbed by the string of amendments to the CRZ notification. In the case of Dahanu, there was news of the Central government seeking to disband the DTEPA, the quasi-judicial body constituted under the directive of the Supreme Court. This is despite, or probably because of, the fact that the DTEPA prevented a fuel gas plant, a port and other such projects that would have been disastrous to the ecological security of the region.

The declaration of an area as an ESA/EFA should not be viewed as being against the objectives of protection (in case the ESA is inclusive of national parks or sanctuaries) under, say, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WLPA). The focus of an ESA is on restricting industrial and developmental processes, while the Forest Conservation Act lays down rules to prevent or allow the diversion of forest areas and the WLPA seeks to protect species of animals or plants and ecosystems which perform functions such as maintaining the micro-climate, water catchments and so on. Therefore, the declaration of an area as ESA could supplement the protection granted to the area by other laws or systems.

The use of the concept of ESA/EFA together with the EPA is gradually gaining popularity and is being recognised as an important strategy for the conservation and sustainable development of sensitive and fragile areas. The role of citizens and NGOs as catalysts in this process is essential. There are issues of non-implementation of these clauses and notifications as there are with any other rule. But ultimate success or failure will depend largely on how effectively they are understood and planned for as well as the manner in which the powers and implementation responsibilities are shared among the people who have stakes in protecting the ecology of a region.