A forest buffer zone, no matter how necessary it may be ecologically, has social consequences and people need to be convinced, say researchers.

Protest in Idukki against SC order on eco-sensitive zonesA protest held in Idukki district
news Environment Tuesday, June 14, 2022 - 17:41

On June 3, the Supreme Court directed that every protected forest, national park and wildlife sanctuary in the country should have a minimum one km  eco-sensitive zone (ESZ), from their demarcated boundaries. A three-judge bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai and Aniruddha Bose, pronounced the judgement in a petition seeking protection of forest lands in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu. The judgement referred to the guidelines on buffer zones issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) of the Government of India on February 9,  2011.

While a few environmentalists have welcomed the order, some others found it unscientific. There were also huge protests against the verdict by farmers organisations in Kerala. Idukki and Wayanad district witnessed hartals called by political parties, including the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF). Protests were also witnessed in the districts of Kannur, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram.

Eco Sensitive zones

According to the 2011 guidelines, the eco-sensitive zones are declared to create a “shock absorber” for the protected areas. “They would also act as a transition from areas of high protection to areas involving lesser protection,” the guidelines said, adding that these zones will however be of regulatory nature rather than prohibitive.

As per the guidelines, a committee comprising the concerned Wildlife Warden, an ecologist, and officials from the Local Self Government and the Revenue Department of the concerned area, are to be formed to look into requirements, methods of management and preparation of plans for each ESZ. Based on that the Chief WildLife Warden can group areas under, ‘Prohibited’, ‘Restricted with Safeguards’ and ‘Permissible Categories’.

The guidelines prohibit commercial mining, setting up of saw mills and industries causing pollution, commercial use of firewood, establishment of major hydroelectric projects, use for production of hazardous substances, undertaking activities related to tourism like flying over the national park area by aircraft or hot air balloons, discharge of effluents and solid waste in natural water bodies or terrestrial areas. Apart from this there are restrictions on many activities like tree felling, establishing hotels, movements of vehicles at night, ground water harvesting and so on.

Mixed reactions

Some environmentalists consider this order as an efficient step for forest conservation. “This is a historical judgement. The lands of poor farmers in Wayanad are being grabbed by a mafia to construct buildings and hotels. Farmers will have to migrate due to this. So, for the farmers this verdict will be a relief. Only mining, saw mills, chemical industries, and huge dams are prohibited in these areas,“ says N Badusha, President, Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samithi, an environmental NGO.

However many environmental researchers and scientists find the order to be not practical and unscientific. Many point out that rather than enforcing a one-size-fits-all ‘1 km’ buffer zone in all protected areas, it should be specific for  each area. Some areas might need a smaller buffer zone while others need large ones. They feel the need for a multidisciplinary approach while planning the creation of an ESZ while addressing the lack of inclusivity in the present system.

Kanchi Kohli, researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, told TNM that both science and society needs to be a part of the process. “So far, ESZs have been negotiated for their political feasibility. They are proposed based on socio-ecological parameters and resisted by economic actors who argue that the regulations would hamper commercial interests like tourism or industrial expansion,” she said. According to her, a logical, multidisciplinary planning exercise to create an ESZ is a challenge, but beneficial.

CR Bijoy, researcher and an expert in resource conflicts, highlighted the absence of concrete law in the country to support the direction by SC. “The order should specify a law or an Act which has to be followed in ESZ regulation,” he said.

He added that the order is ambiguous and open to interpretation, raising questions on practical implementation. “No criteria for eco-sensitive zones have been specified. One needs to ask what is the science behind this one kilometre? There are areas where states are yet to demarcate the zones,” he said.

Bijoy feels that such zones should be declared at the LSG-level with the cooperation of indgenous communities. “The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, has to be implemented effectively. Power should be given to democratically elected leaders instead of bureaucrats,” said Bijoy.

Fr Sebastian Kochupurakkal, convener, High Range Samrakshana Samiti, a farmers organisation led by priests under the Idukki diocese, said: “There are eight sanctuaries and national parks in and around Idukki. ESZ regulations will tamper with the daily life of the people living there. Forest officials will wield authority in these areas and they will have control over the lives of farmers.”

He alleged that the ESZs are a planned attempt to increase the forest cover. “Human animal conflicts have increased and they want the farmers to leave their land due to wild animal menace. The number of wild animals has drastically increased. Except in India, all other countries have rules to control their numbers,” he said.

“We have experienced the practical difficulties while living there. On paper, only certain things will be prohibited but there are several other issues that would impact people when a buffer zone is demarcated,” he said.

Rajesh Krishnan, a farmer who is part of a sustainable farming initiative in Wayanad', said if the SC order has to be implemented on the basis of 2011 February 9 guidelines then it would hardly affect the farmers. “There should be clarity in the order, whether it's a new order or it's about 2011 guidelines,” he said.

He feels that people behind the protests may not be farmers. “In the name of farmers, mining lobbies or tourism business mafia can create problems, “ he alleged.

N Badusha feels “settler farmer' organisations, which are spreading misconceptions and untruths against the “historic” Supreme Court ruling, are the flag-bearers of the quarry-mining mafia and the tourism-construction lobby.

“An independent body comprising the district collector, MP, MLA and people's representatives has been appointed to prepare the master plan for the eco sensitive region. If there are towns and densely populated areas, the state government can approach the Supreme Court through the Ministry of Environment,” he said.

Kanchi Kohli, while highlighting the importance of inclusivity, also says people who are affected need to be convinced. “Any restriction, no matter how necessary it may be ecologically, has social consequences. When imposed without explanation or persuasion the political ramifications should be anticipated. The only way to address concerns is by not being dismissive of them. These processes have to be democratic and have to account for the restrictions that ESZ regulations are likely to impose on big and small farmers, fishing communities, traders and other livelihood groups. It is only based on these solutions that can be designed which can include prohibitions, incentives, compensations or exemptions,” she said.

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