The Kerala Cabinet on Wednesday decided to rectify a 2019 decision of the LDF government in the state to exclude residential and agricultural areas as well as government, semi-government and public institutions from 1-km eco-sensitive zones (ESZ).
This is meant to avoid human settlements from the purview of ESZ of protected forest tracts.
Taking into account the objections received against a Central government draft notification, which included residential areas around 23 wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in the state, the Cabinet decided to approve the Forest Department’s proposal to exclude such areas, agricultural land, and various public institutions from ESZ, according to a release from the Chief Minister’s Office.
The state Forest and Wildlife Department’s proposal has been forwarded to the Centre, it added.
In 2019, the then LDF government had decided to recommend that 1 km of area around boundaries of protected forests, including human settlements, as ESZs.
However, following a Supreme Court verdict on June 3 to establish 1-km ESZs around all protected areas, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, Kerala has seen widespread protests in hilly regions of the state. Opposition Congress and the Catholic Church have led the protests in which the LDF, in particular the CPI(M), has drawn flak for its 2019 decision.
The Cabinet’s decision to exempt human settlements from the purview of ESZ is expected to help the CPI(M)-led government save face in the backdrop of the Opposition’s allegation that the state government is not sincere in its approach to protect the interest of farmers.
The issue also came to limelight after some activists of SFI, the CPI(M)’s students’ wing, vandalised Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s office in Wayanad, alleging that he had not intervened in the issue. The state government subsequently convened a high-level meeting to address the situation emerging out of the apex court’s June 3 verdict.
As part of steps to allay fears of farmers, and people living close to protected forest areas, the state government has also decided to submit a modification petition in Supreme Court, as well as to approach the Central Empowered Committee to get exemptions on the verdict.
Kerala has 23 protected forest areas. Of these, 12 are wildlife sanctuaries, three bird sanctuaries, five national parks, and two tiger reserves.
The state’s forest cover, as per data available from 2019-20, is 11,521 sq km, which forms 29.65 per cent of the state’s total geographical area.
This ratio of forest to total geographical areas is much higher than the national average of 6.09 per cent. The state’s forest cover has gone up by 823 square km from 2017.