Ecologically sensitive zones (ESZ) are intended to safeguard ‘protected areas’ — national parks and wildlife sanctuaries — by transitioning from an area of lower protection to an area of higher protection. However, the creation of these zones has provoked protests in Kerala and some other regions, in a precursor to what is likely to emerge in other parts of the country.

What are protected areas?

  • Protected areas cover 5.26% of India’s land area as 108 national parks and 564 wildlife sanctuaries.
  • They are notified under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972. Protected areas do away with even those activities permitted in ‘reserve forests’, where the rights of forest-dependent communities — those residing on and/or accessing forest land — are extinguished, unless specifically allowed.
  • However, this rights-negating ‘fortress conservation model’, has come under repeated criticism from conservation scientists, bringing in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 which is also known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
  • FRA recognises the customary and traditional rights (both individual and collective) of forest-dwellers on forest land, including in protected areas.

How is the FRA being implemented?

  • By bringing in the FRA, lawmakers were trying to undo a historic injustice done to the forest dwelling community of India.
  • The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) reckoned in 2009 itself that doing so would mean handing over at least four lakh sq. km — more than half of India’s notified forest area — to village-level institutions.
  • But as of June 2022, only 64,873.70 sq. km — or 16% — has come under the FRA. (The actual area is likely smaller as some areas have been counted multiple times for different rights.)
  • However, this has been achieved in only a decade and a half, compared to no improvements in the six decades before.
  • This is attributed to the gram sabhas which took over the power to determine rights through open democratic process from government officials.
  • These gram sabhas are now the statutory authorities empowered to conserve, protect and manage forests, wildlife and biodiversity lying within the traditional village boundaries.
  • These areas under gram sabhas are to be a new category of forests called ‘community forest resource’ (CFR). Gram sabhas have to integrate their CFR conservation and management plan into the ‘working plan’ of the Forest Department, with the required modifications.

What are ESZs?

  • Surrounding protected areas is a region of more than 1,11,000 sq. km — or 3.4% percent of the country’s land — which falls under the ESZ regime.
  • Governments have notified 341 ESZs in 29 States and five Union territories, while another 85 ESZs are awaiting notification. Together, protected areas and ESZs cover 8.66% of India’s land area.
  • The ESZs span notified forests outside protected areas, most of which could also come under gram sabhas’ jurisdiction under the FRA.
  • The extent of ESZs from the boundary of a protected area ranges from 0 to as much as 45.82 km (in Pin Valley National Park, Himachal Pradesh). Fifteen States have ESZs exceeding 10 km.

What is the problem?

  • Significantly, parts of the ESZs in ten States — Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan and Telangana — fall within the Scheduled Areas notified under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.
  • Such Scheduled Areas cover over 11% of the country’s land area and are thickly forested and mountainous.
  • They are preponderantly populated by Scheduled Tribe groups and are notified by the President under Article 244 where the Provisions of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) 1996 apply.
  • The PESA recognises habitation-level gram sabhas to be competent to safeguard and preserve community resources on forest and revenue lands in Scheduled Areas.
  • However, the MoEFCC has shown no inclination to amend the Indian Forest Act 1927, the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the Environment (Protection) Act 1986 (under which ESZs are notified) to comply with the PESA and FRA.
  • In fact, in the Forest Conservation Rules, compliance with the FRA, recognition of forest rights and the gram sabha’s consent were preconditions for considering proposals to divert forest land for non-forestry purposes — until the MoEFCC did away with them in 2022.
  • The Ministry has also overlooked demands by the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes to restore the erstwhile FRA compliance procedure. 

How exactly were the ESZs implemented?

  • The 2002 Wildlife Conservation Strategy envisaged lands within 10 km of the boundaries of protected areas to be notified as ecologically fragile zones under Section 3(2)(v) of the Environment Protection Act 1986 and its Rules 5(viii) and (x). The MoEFCC was to take steps to protect the environment by regulating and (if required) prohibiting industries, operations and processes. Rule 5(1)(vi) provided for environmentally compatible land-use in areas around protected areas.
  • In 2005, the National Board for Wildlife decided to delineate site-specific ESZs to regulate specific activities instead of prohibiting them. Therefore, in May 2005, the MoEFCC asked the States and UTs to propose ESZs.
  • The MoEFCC guidelines for ESZs stated that based on the forest rangers’ inventory of land-use and wildlife corridors within 10 km of each protected area, a committee consisting of the Wildlife Warden, an ecologist, and an official from the local government was to determine the extent of each ESZ, the nature of environmental concerns to be addressed and ways to address them.
  • The Chief Wildlife Warden was to then list the activities that were to be prohibited, to be restricted with safeguards and to be permitted.
  • After this process, the State government would submit this list, the geographical description of the area and the biodiversity values, the rights and entitlements of local communities, and their economic potential and implications for their livelihoods, as a proposal to the MoEFCC for notification.
  • The guidelines also outlined a general indicative list of activities to be prohibited, regulated or permitted and information to be incorporated in the proposal.
  • Within two years of notification, the State government is required to draft a Zonal Master Plan for each ESZ in consultation with a number of departments.
  • However, there has been no information to the public on a Zonal Master Plan since 2012, when ESZs first began to be notified.
  • Additionally, to monitor compliance with the various provisions of each notification, a State had to set up a monitoring committee for each ESZ.
  • The committee is required to report the actions taken, to the Chief Wildlife Warden every year.
  • Unfortunately, the institutional mechanisms and procedures prescribed in the guidelines and the ESZ notifications disregarded many legal facts and statutory requirements.
  • They set aside the habitation-level gram sabhas in Scheduled Area and CFR forests and the Panchayat-raj institutions entrusted with soil conservation, water management, social forestry, etc., even though those activities fall squarely within the scope of ESZs.
  • In effect, what ought to have been a location, community and ecology specific plan, arrived at through people’s informed participation, became a ‘one size fits all’ notification.

What has led to the protests?

  • On June 3, 2022, the Supreme Court gave further directions on ESZs. First, the Court said that the MoEFCC guidelines are also to be implemented in the area proposed in the draft notification awaiting finalisation and within a 10-km radius of yet-to-be-proposed protected areas.
  • The Court also allowed States to increase or decrease the minimum width of ESZs. Secondly, the Court vested the powers to ensure compliance with the guidelines with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and the Home Secretary of the State/UT.
  • The PCCF was to make a list of all structures within the ESZs and report it to the Supreme Court within three months (this is yet to be done).
  • The Court also ordered that no new permanent structure could come up for any purpose within an ESZ.
  • This effectively meant that all the activities permitted by the guidelines and which are already being carried out can continue only if the PCCF grants permission, and that too within six months of the court’s order.
  • This period has already expired. Additionally, the Court’s directions have put the lives of many people in the hands of the PCCF — whose authority now extends beyond the forest to revenue lands falling within an ESZ. This has led to protests in Kerala.
  • The new structures that are banned could include electric poles, buildings, walls, roads and bridges. Millions of forest-dwellers living on forest land and on the fringes of forests are the most affected.
  • After having been denied forest rights, they are now also denied better public infrastructure. The government and the judiciary need to reconcile laws, reaffirm democratic governance, and protect the environment and as well as livelihoods.


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