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Western Ghats notified as Ecologically Sensitive Area

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March 06, 2017

Why in news?

After several years of discussions, the government has finally notified 56,825 square km area in the Western Ghats (WG) region as ecologically sensitive area (ESA).

What does it mean?

  • The notified land is spread over six states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
  • Concerned state govts and stakeholders have 60 days’ time to raise objections/make suggestions. If no changes have to be made, the notification will become final.
  • In the ESA, all kinds of mining activities, thermal power plants and highly polluting industries would no longer be allowed.
  • The existing mines shall be phased out within five years from the issue of final notification or on the expiry of the existing mining lease, whichever is earlier.
  • All new ‘Red’ category industries and the expansion of such existing industries shall be banned.
  • Other kinds of projects and activities, like operation of hydropower plants, and ‘orange’ category of industries, will be strictly regulated in the ESA.
  • New expansion projects of building and construction with built-up area of 20,000 square meters and above shall be prohibited too.

Why Western Ghats is so important?

  • Western Ghats is a mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of the Indian peninsula, located entirely in India.
  • It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the eight "hottest hot-spots" of biological diversity in the world.
  • A total of 39 properties including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries were designated as world heritage sites - twenty in Kerala, ten in Karnataka, five in Tamil Nadu and four in Maharashtra.
  • It has over 7,402 species of flowering plants, 1,814 species of non-flowering plants, 139 mammal species, 508 bird species, 179 amphibian species, 6,000 insects species and 290 freshwater fish species.
  • Thus, the demarcation of an ESA is an effort to protect the fragile eco-system from indiscriminate industrialisation, mining and unregulated development.
  • Two committees – Gadgil and Kasturirangan – were appointed in the last eight years to identify the areas that needed to be kept out from such activities.

What did Gadgil report say?

  • The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), also known as the Gadgil Commission has designated the entire hill range as an Ecologically Sensitive Area.
  • The panel has classified the 142 taluks in the Western Ghats boundary into Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) 1, 2 and 3.
  • It recommended that no new dams based on large-scale storage be permitted in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1.
  • For Goa, the committee suggested an indefinite moratorium on new environmental clearances for mining in ESZ 1 and 2.
  • No new polluting industries, including coal-based power plants, should be allowed in ESZ 1 and 2.
  • The existing red and orange category industries should be asked to switch to zero pollution by 2016.
  • Gadgil Committee asked for bottom to top approach i.e., from Gram sabhas to top, rather than a top to bottom approach.
  • It suggested the formation of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), a statutory authority which enjoys the powers under the Environment (Protection) Act.
  • The major criticism faced by Gagdil Committee was that it was more environment-friendly and is not in tune with the ground realities.

What did Kasturirangan report say?

  • The report has sought to balance the two concerns of development and environment protection, by watering down the environmental regulation regime proposed by Gadgil.
  • It seeks to bring just 37% of the Western Ghats under the ESA zones — down from the 64% suggested by the Gadgil report.
  • The report distinguishes between cultural and natural landscape.
  • It said that cultural landscapes, which include human settlements, agri fields and plantations, covered 58.44% of the Western Ghats.
  • It identified 90% of the remaining natural landscape area marked as an ESA. The panel called for a complete ban on mining, quarrying and sand mining in this area.
  • It also made several pro-farmer recommendations, including the exclusion of inhabited regions and plantations from the purview of ESAs.
  • The major criticism of the committee is it used remote sensing and aerial survey methods for zonal demarcation of land in WG.
  • The use of  this erroneous method had caused inclusion of many villages under ESAs.

What needs to be done?

  • The question that needs speedy resolution is how much of the Western Ghats can be demarcated as ecologically sensitive?
  • Are other areas free to be exploited for industrial activity with no environmental consequences?
  • More complicated is the assessment of ecosystem services delivered by the forests, lakes, rivers to communities.
  • All this points to the need for wider and more open consultation with people at all levels, imbuing the process with scientific insights.
  • Thus, there is little purpose in the centre returning with another draft notification to identify ecologically sensitive areas.
  • What it needs is a framework under which scientific evidence and public concerns are debated and the baseline for ESAs arrived at.

 

Source: The Indian Express

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