United on exclusion: States insist on demarcating more area in the Western Ghats from 'ecologically sensitive' category

Print edition : December 31, 2021

The Western Ghat mountains in Kerala’s Wayanad district. Photo: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP

Kerala Finance Minister K.N. Balagopal: “Kerala’s position is that we have no objection if the ESAs are restricted to the protected areas.” Photo: PTI

Bhupender Yadav, Union Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The validity of the Centre’s fourth draft notification on ecologically sensitive areas in the Western Ghats will end soon. But Kerala stands firm on exclusion of more area from ESA category as recommended by an experts’ committee. The five other stakeholder States too demand exclusion of more areas.

THE final notification to demarcate ecologically sensitive areas (ESAs) in the Western Ghats, spread across six States—Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Gujarat—and prohibit eco-destructive projects and activities there has been pending for nearly eight years with many of the draft provisions enmeshed in controversies. With the validity of the fourth draft notification due to end on December 31, the Centre initiated a series of consultations with the six State governments and Members of Parliament from these States as part of its efforts to issue the final notification and formally demarcate the ESAs.

There is much interest in the stakeholder States on how their respective governments would respond to the Centre’s new proposal to segregate the identified ESA villages into ‘core areas’ and ‘non-core areas’, and possibly implement only diluted ecological restrictions in ’non-core areas’.

Until now, the States have refused to budge from their original stand that there is no way entire villages earmarked by the Kasturirangan Committee (using satellite data and without any physical verification) or smaller areas earmarked subsequently in the draft notifications can be declared as ESAs. They claim that the restrictions, when imposed in populated areas, will affect people’s lives and livelihoods and lead to sensitive social and political problems. The States have demanded exclusion of more areas from demarcation as ESA, despite the extensive damage and destruction caused in the region by natural calamities in the past decade.

Notably, Karnataka has demanded the withdrawal of the draft Western Ghats notification demarcating 56,825 square kilometres as the “Western Ghats ESA”. However, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), in its recent order, directed the Centre not “to reduce the area of ESAs as notified in the latest draft” without the changes being considered by the Tribunal. It said “there is no justification for continued delay in issuing the final notification merely because the States had sought exclusion of area from eco-sensitive zone”.

Also read: ‘Unsettling report’

The Centre proposes to overcome many such “hurdles” by offering a via media whereby within a notified ESA village there will be non-core areas where ecological restrictions will not be as severe as in the core areas, although they will still be termed as ESA.

Kerala seeks clarity

Kerala, for instance, has requested more clarity on the proposal, even as it reiterated a Cabinet decision taken in 2018 that only 8,656 sq. km comprising forests and protected areas can be declared as ESAs in the State, as the remaining area came under the category of settlements, agriculture land and plantations. However, all the four draft notifications issued so far by the Centre have maintained that the ESA in Kerala is spread over 9,993.7 sq. km, which includes 9,107 sq. km of forest area and 886.7 sq. km of non-forest area. The first draft notification, which defined Kerala’s ESA as 9,993.7 sq. km, was issued on March 10, 2014, on the basis of data provided by the then Congress-led United Democratic Front government in the State.

Before arriving at this conclusion, the State had launched an exercise to demarcate the ESA within its territory through “physical verification” by an expert committee appointed to “study the impact of the Kasturirangan panel’s recommendations and to assess ground level information”. It also had set up panchayat-level committees in the 123 ESA villages (identified in the Kasturirangan report) for undertaking on-the-spot field verification and interacting with stakeholders.

These committees had recommended “exclusion of all cultural landscape” from the ESA. Moreover, the State government took the view that “agricultural areas, orchards, horticultural plots, plantation and residential areas” may also be kept out of the ESA. The government announced that the Kasturirangan Committee “failed to take into account the ground realities in Kerala”, which, it said, unlike many other States, had a high population density. The then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said that many of the ESA villages identified in the State had “only plantations and no forests as such”, and that the Kasturirangan Committee did not assess it correctly because it relied on remote-sensing data that failed to distinguish between forests and plantations.

The UDF government also said that 99 of the 123 villages identified as ESA did not come under the “low population density [of 100 persons per sq. km] criterion” adopted by the Kasturirangan Committee to include them in the ESA category. It was also argued that the recommendation that restrictions would be imposed in a 10-km buffer zone around forest areas would create several problems in a densely populated State.

“The only solution is to remove populated areas from the list of ESAs,” Oommen Chandy had said. It was on the basis of this rationale that the UDF government had recommended that an area of 9,993.7 sq. km be considered as ESA, as opposed to 13,108 sq. km recommended by the Kasturirangan Committee.

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Protests began, and steadily grew. The Left Democratic Front (LDF), which came to power in 2016, appointed an experts’ committee headed by Additional Chief Secretary P.H. Kurien, who was also the head of the State Disaster Management Authority, to undertake a “detailed and scientific” study. On the basis of the review by the experts’ committee, the new government recommended that an additional area of 1,337.24 sq. km should be excluded from the ESA category. Since 2018, Kerala has been arguing for the exclusion of the additional area of 1,337.24 sq. km from being categorised as ESAs.

Dr V. Venu, Additional Chief Secretary, said: “The Central government has now orally put forth a proposal that the ESA area identified in the draft notification may be divided into core and non-core areas. The areas already agreed by the respective States as ESAs can be earmarked as core areas, and the remaining places included in the draft notification about which the States have objections to being categorised as ESAs can be demarcated as non-core areas that would be eligible for certain relaxations.”

Finance Minister K.N. Balagopal, who represented Kerala in the talks convened by Bhupender Yadav, Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, told Frontline: “Kerala’s position is that we have no objection if the ESAs are restricted to the protected areas. All we have said now is that in the draft notification 9,993.7 sq. km area has been earmarked as ESA. There is an agreement that 8,656 sq. km should remain as ESAs; the balance 1,337 sq. km must be excluded from the final notification. This is the State government’s view.”

He said: “We have also brought to the attention of the Government of India that the 1,337 sq. km area for which we seek exclusion has been under human habitation for centuries and that there are houses, government offices and markets there. It is to be understood that Kerala has no objection to 87 per cent of the area demarcated in the draft notification being declared as ESA. Our objections are only regarding the rest of the 13 per cent area, because they are populated areas. The total area of the State is only 38,000 sq. km, of which nearly 28,000 sq. km is in the Western Ghats region. We want the Centre to take this too into consideration. Declaring 8,600 sq. km is OK, it will mean a total of 92 villages. But the proposal about the remaining 1,300 sq. km needs to be re-examined.”

The Minister said stringent environmental laws were in place in Kerala and that the State had a strong public opinion and a vibrant environmental movement that frowned upon legal violations and any threat to the ecology of the region. Moreover, in addition to the 9,993.7 sq. km area that remain as protected forests, Kerala already has measures in place to protect many other areas, in addition to some 15,000 acres [6,000 hectares] that were declared as ecologically fragile land (EFL). In the context of the devastating floods that occurred in the State, we have also prepared a development master plan to ensure proper land use and adherence to development norms and restrictions, he said.

Dean Kuriakose, MP from Idukki, the district with the maximum number of proposed ESA villages in Kerala, said that there was now a “general consensus” and the Centre indicated that it would accept Kerala’s demand “partially”. He said the Centre maintained that the 1,337.24 sq. km area that Kerala wanted excluded from the ESA category could not be declared as non-ESA, but it would be considered as non-core ESA.

Balagopal said the State had not responded to the new Central proposal regarding core and non-core areas. “There is no clarity on the kind of relaxations that would be available in the non-core areas. We need an explanation in writing, not just a verbal proposal. For instance, will it be the State or the Centre that would be taking the decisions on the restrictions or relaxations in such non-core areas? What kind of relaxations will be available in the non-core areas, and so on.”

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Dean Kuriakose said: “A final decision has been pending for over eight years now, and my view as an MP from Idukki is that it must be issued without further delay. The uncertainty about it has created a big crisis for the people in the region. If the final notification is issued, it will at least resolve this uncertainty.”

He said the Centre could even think of issuing “a separate notification for Kerala alone”, if required, because the State was the first to complete the exercise of demarcating ESAs. “The first ESA draft notification was issued by the Centre after Kerala submitted its report as early as in 2014. It was after the LDF government came to power that an additional proposal for further exclusion of 1,339 sq. km has been made. Whether this is accepted or not, the Centre should expeditiously decide on the issue of exclusion or inclusion of ESAs in the Western Ghats region. The Green Tribunal had previously said that it was open to the Ministry of Environment and Forests declaring ESAs for each State, or collectively for the entire Western Ghats.”

A broad consensus seems to have emerged among political parties that if populated areas were included in the ESA, it would lead to problems. N.K. Premachandran, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) MP from Kollam said that the BJP government at the Centre appeared to be favourable to the demand of the States for more relaxations. “In this issue, we can see that BJP government and the LDF government in Kerala are two sides of the same coin,” he said.

Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, the determined moves made by all the major political parties in Kerala and successive governments to try and confine the proposed ESA restrictions to the forest areas of the State seem to be paying off. But confining ESAs to (already) protected regions would make the ESA notification redundant, exposing it to legal challenges.

In September last year, the NGT expressed concern that all the six States were seeking reduction in the area to be demarcated as ESA. A bench headed by NGT Chairman Adarsh Kumar Goel said in an order passed on September 29, 2020: “There is demand for more and more exclusion by those who claim the need for ‘development’ while need for ‘environment protection’ does not allow acceptance of such demands. This aspect needs to be finalised soon and has been pending consideration for the last about eight years.”

Maharashtra has sought an exemption of 2,570.88 sq. km, Kerala 1,337.24 sq. km), Karnataka 1,571 sq. km, Goa 754 sq. km, Gujarat 129 sq. km and Tamil Nadu 24.53 sq.km.

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