The Centre and six states — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat — are trying to reach a compromise regarding demarcating ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) in the Western Ghats. The 1,600 kilometre mountain range runs parallel to the west coast and through these six states.
The issue at hand
A draft notification regarding ecologically sensitive areas, issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF), has been delayed for over a year due to on-going negotiations between the Centre and the states. The initial draft, in March 2014, which was to be finalised in 545 days or by September 2015, has been repeatedly pushed, and was delayed for the third time last week.
The notice earmarked 60,000 square kilometres, or 37 per cent of the Ghats, as ecologically sensitive.
However, it was protested by the states, especially Kerala, as ESAs restrict developmental activity. The Centre has since decided to accept recommendations from each state government.
What are ESAs?
An ecologically sensitive area is one that is protected by the government given the sheer number of species, plants and animals endemic to the region. According to the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the government can prohibit industrial operations such as mining, sand quarrying and building thermal power plants in sensitive areas.
The definition offered by the MoEF: “An ecological sensitive area is a bio-climatic unit (as demarcated by entire landscapes) in the Western Ghats wherein human impacts have locally caused irreversible changes in the structure of biological communities (as evident in number/ composition of species and their relative abundances) and their natural habitats.”
The Western Ghats were declared an ecological hotspot in 1988.
To categorise an area as ecologically sensitive, the government looks at topography, climate and rainfall, land use and land cover, roads and settlements, human population, biodiversity corridors and data of plants and animal species.
The Kasturirangan committee report
The MoEF notification is based on findings of a High-Level Working Group, also known as the Kasturirangan committee. The government-appointed committee had said that the natural landscape of the Ghats constitutes only 41 per cent, or which 90 percent or 60,000 square kilometres were identified as ecologically sensitive.
The committee suggested phasing out current mining projects within five years, or when mining leases were about to expire. It recommended that infrastructure and development projects be subject to environmental clearance, and that villages in ESA be involved in decision making regarding future projects.
The notification was deemed too environmentally friendly by stakeholder states.
Reactions to the report
As the Kasturirangam reports was contended by all states, the government’s new notification lists the 56,825 square kilometres as ecologically sensitive; 20,668 square kilometres in Karnataka, 17,340 sq kms in Maharashtra, 9,993 sq kms in Kerala, 6,914 sq kms in Tamil Nadu, 1,461 sq kms in Goa and 449 sq km in Gujarat.
Kerala, the most vocal regarding the report, has approached the Centre to further reduce the ESA to 9,107 square kilometres—the Kasturirangam report had restricted it to 13,108 initially. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced in the state Assembly that his government has urged the Centre to reconsider the ESA.
Separately, the Congress-led UDF opposition in Kerala is holding a hartal on March 4, in protest of the Centre’s “delay” in implementing the Kasturirangam recommendations to protect the Ghats, reports Business Standard.
The other states have agreed to the figures in the fresh draft, according to the Times of India.
The states have 60 days to voice concerns over the draft notification. If no changes need to be made, the notification will become final.
The Western Ghats was included as a ‘World Natural Heritage Site’ by UNESCO in 2012. According to the organisation, the Ghats, which are older than the Himalayas, are home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species. It has been recognised as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity.