The National Wildlife Action Plan 2002, the highest policy instrument on wildlife was one of the initial and most crucial instruments, which recognized that wildlife conservation cannot be restricted to national parks and sanctuaries as the areas outside the protected area network are often vital ecological corridor links and must be protected to prevent isolation of fragments of biodiversity. The said plan therefore provided for declaration of identified areas around protected areas to be declared as ecologically fragile under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.
Another crucial and important policy document in the direction of protection of environment and forest with the objective of restricting and regulating activities in Ecologically Sensitive Areas was the Wildlife Conservation Strategy, 2002, prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), now Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), which specifically provides that the lands falling within 10 km of the boundaries of National Parks and Sanctuaries should be notified as eco-fragile zones under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.
It may be noted that the Wildlife Conservation Strategy, 2002, was duly approved and adopted by the then Indian Board for Wildlife (now National Board of Wildlife, headed by the Prime Minister of India) in its 21st meeting on January 21, 2002, thus, giving its provisions a statutory recognition and force as provided in the ‘Guidelines for Declaration of Eco Sensitive Zones around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries’.
After adoption of the Wildlife Conservation Strategy, 2002, the MoEF vide letter dated 06.02.2002 asked the Chief Wildlife Wardens of all the states for listing out areas within 10 km from the boundaries of protected areas within their respective areas and to furnish detailed proposals for notification of such areas as eco-sensitive areas.
However, some states raised the concern that most of the human habitation and other areas including the important cities would fall under the purview of the ecologically sensitive areas if the 10 kms range from the National Parks and Sanctuary concept is applied by them and would adversely affect the development.
The National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), the top statutory board on wildlife, considering the aforesaid concerns of the states on the applicability of 10 kms range concept, in its meeting on March 17, 2005 decided that the delineation of eco-sensitive zones would be site specific and relate to regulation rather than prohibition of specific activities with consultation and concurrence from the respective State Governments.
Further in pursuance to the aforesaid stand of the National Board of Wildlife, the ministry of environment and forest on May 27, 2005 asked the Chief Wildlife Wardens to initiate steps for designating areas as ecologically sensitive areas around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in an order on April 12, 2006 passed in the matter of Goa Foundation vs. Union of India, while referring to the Wildlife Conservation Strategy 2002, gave specific directions to the states for sending proposals to MoEF for declaration of ecologically sensitive areas. Further, the apex court stipulated that in case the aforesaid exercise was not undertaken by the states, the Court would itself issue directions for declaration of areas of 10 km around the boundary of protected area as ecologically sensitive areas.
In pursuance to the said order of the Supreme Court, the environment ministry issued guidelines for declaration of eco-sensitive zones around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries on February 9, 2011 and for facilitating the declaration of eco-sensitive zones around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries envisaged identification of activities under the categories of prohibited/ regulated/ permitted within such areas. It is pertinent to mention here that the industries causing (Water, Air, Soil, Noise, etc) are to be under prohibited category as per the said guidelines.
It may be noted that vide memorandum on December 2, 2009, MoEF laid down that in cases of projects located within the 10 km boundary of a national park and wildlife sanctuary, a specific condition will be laid down which would stipulate that the environmental clearance will be subject to the obtainment of forestry and wildlife clearances, including clearance from the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife.
Furthermore, it was decided by MoEF that in case the state governments fails to submit proposal(s) for the creation of ESZ around the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, than the default 10 km ecologically sensitive zone would be created around the said national park or wildlife sanctuary, wherein certain activities are prohibited, more particularly prohibition of certain industries or class of industries and their operations and processes in the said eco- sensitive zone.
However, number of red category industries, around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in Assam, were granted environment clearances by MoEF without fulfilling the prerequisite of taking recommendations of the standing committee of the National Board of Wildlife with respect to forest clearance and wildlife clearance as mandated under the Wildlife Protection Act and in violation of order(s) of the Supreme Court, including MoEF’s own guidelines issued on December 19, 2012.
And even when eco-sensitive zones were finally declared in some of the national parks and wildlife sanctuary, it was noticed that most of red category industries were kept outside of the boundary of the eco-sensitive zone even though a number of such highly polluting industries are only 100-500 meters from the boundary of the national park or wildlife sanctuary.
At the same time the areas wherein indigenous people have been dwelling sustainably since time immemorial, the eco sensitive zone was extended up to a distance of 5-6 kms, thereby creating two standards, one for highly polluting Industries and another for indigenous people.
The MoEF guidelines specifically states that the eco-sensitive zones would act as the “shock absorber”/ “transition zone” to the protected areas by regulating and managing the activities around the protected areas. Yet by allowing highly polluting red category industries to set up base right next to the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, defeats the very purpose of creation of such eco sensitive zones around a protected area.
It would have been prudent for the state as well as the central government to have at least created a minimum 1 km eco sensitive zone around the national parks and wildlife sanctuary, if not more, so that highly polluting industries will not adversely affect the biota of the protected areas and truly acted as its shock absorber.
Vikram Rajkhowa, an advocate of Gauhati High Court, is a wildlife lover. He can be reached at [email protected]