Inviting disaster

Print edition : July 26, 2013

Buildings partly submerged in the flooded Alaknanda river at Govind Ghat on June 18. Photo: AP

THE widespread destruction by floods prompted an instantaneous reaction from the Uttarakhand government: it announced six eco-sensitive zones in the State. This, however, appears to be a knee-jerk reaction because in 2012, the present Chief Minister, Vijay Bahuguna, had resisted the Centre’s move to declare the riverfront area of the Bhagirathi, extending from Gangotri to Uttarkashi, an eco-sensitive zone.

The issue of demarcation of eco-sensitive zones in Uttarakhand and other hill States such as Himachal Pradesh and the north-eastern States has witnessed a protracted struggle between the Centre and the States, with ecological concerns becoming the victim. While it is a fact that several of the State governments have resisted the demarcation of eco-sensitive zones because of pressure from various quarters, the present eco-sensitive zone framework of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is not without its problems. The major sticking points in the framework are the lack of adequate involvement of the local people and the inability to enforce its implementation because of the Centre-State conflict.

Eco-sensitive zones are ecologically significant areas that need to be protected from industrial pollution and the ravages of unregulated development. In 2011, the MoEF had issued draft guidelines for approval of proposals for such eco-sensitive zones and set a deadline, February 2013, for the States to submit their proposals. The final guidelines were notified by the Ministry in December 2012. The eco-sensitive zones were to be demarcated on the basis of different land-use patterns and the different types of activities and the types and numbers of industries operating under each of the protected areas as well as important corridors. A committee consisting of a wildlife warden, an ecologist, an official from the local government and an official of the Revenue Department of the concerned area was to be formed for demarcating these zones. Once the proposal was finalised, it was to be sent to the MoEF for processing and notification. The deadline for the submission of the proposals was later extended to May 2013. Despite this, the Ministry received proposals only from 280 out of the 618 national parks and sanctuaries.

Speaking to Frontline, Himanshu Thakkar, a coordinator for the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People, said: “The MoEF took a very long time to finalise the draft notification for guidelines on the eco-sensitive zone proposal. It came out with a final notification in December 2012. The present framework is a step in the right direction, but there are still some sticking points. There needs to be a clearly defined role for local gram sabhas in the process of decision-making where development projects impact villages. Also, hydel power projects below 2 MW have been allowed in eco-sensitive zones. There has to be a procedure in place where approval should be required for these projects too. Besides, there are also concerns about hydropower projects in ecologically sensitive areas. As of now, projects generating below 25 MW of power do not require environmental impact assessment. We have written several times to the MoEF demanding that these projects need environmental clearance, an environmental management plan, monitoring and public consultation. The Ministry has not responded yet.”

Speaking about the problems of implementation of the present eco-sensitive zone framework, Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, said: “The eco-sensitive zone framework in its present form needs to be reviewed. It has not really led to the desired results. There are problems of poor enforcement. It has also alienated the local people further. In developing eco-sensitive zones in Uttarakhand, it is important to consider whether a single monitoring authority can manage such a huge area. The inability to enforce implementation and the size of the monitoring authority in the case of huge areas are two major problems of the framework. At the same time, the State government cannot be given a free hand because it has not been particularly sensitive to ecological concerns.”

The proposal to demarcate eco-sensitive zones has been put on hold by other hill States as well, citing the need for power projects required for development. Manshi Asher of the Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective which works in Himachal Pradesh, said: “Large-scale hydroelectric power projects are being pushed in the hill States in the name of promoting clean energy. A lot of these projects lead to displacement, loss of forest rights and loss of access to water for the local communities. But these projects are being pushed through disregarding the framework for demarcating eco-sensitive zones and river regulations norms. ”

In an open letter to the Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister, she wrote: “While the government has repeatedly spoken of mitigation measures and afforestation, from the CAG’s [Comptroller and Auditor General] 2012 report on the performance of hydroelectric projects in the State, these measures have not been implemented at all. In fact, the CAG report has highlighted that hydro projects are posing a severe threat to both natural ecology and stabilisation of hill slopes. The report also raised doubts on sustenance of aquatic ecosystem and ground water aquifers, considering that the minimum water flow of 15 per cent immediately downstream was not kept by a single power producer studied by the CAG.... Most importantly, the report recognises that prescribed monitoring mechanisms for ensuring effective implementation of projects and project safety, quality control and other management systems were non-existent in the Department.” In the absence of coordination between the Centre and the States in implementing a foolproof environmental regulatory framework, ecologically fragile zones will only become more vulnerable to natural disasters.

Sagnik Dutta

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