The recent Supreme Court judgement concerning the extent of eco-sensitive zones (ESZs) around protected areas could hamper new development activities in close proximity to certain parts of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and Thane Creek Flamingo Sanctuary (TCFS), both of which are protected under the Wildlife Act (1972). As per the apex court’s directive on June 3, all protected areas in the country need to maintain a minimum width of one km in their delineated ESZs.
The ESZs around SGNP and TCFS, however, have a minimum width of 0 metre and 100 metre, respectively at their narrowest points. “This is going to create a problem for new real estate development. All states have been asked to comply with the judgement, meaning certain activities can no longer be allowed anywhere within one km of the protected area’s boundary without going through an additional level of clearance,” said Godfrey Pimenta, an advocate and founder of city-based civil society group Watchdog Foundation.
“We direct that each protected forest, that is national park or wildlife sanctuary, must have an ESZ of minimum one kilometre measured from the demarcated boundary of such protected forest in which the activities proscribed and prescribed in the guidelines of Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on February 9, 2011 shall be strictly adhered to,” the SC said.
In 2006, in an unrelated matter, the apex court had passed a direction to maintain a 10-km-wide ESZ around all protected areas. However, states found that this was not practically feasible, particularly in more urbanised parts of the country. The Union environment ministry had in February 2011 published a set of indicative guidelines on demarcation of ESZs for all states to follow, which included a broad list of activities that could be allowed, promoted, regulated, or prohibited in ESZs. The guidelines are indicative in nature, and also concede that a uniform-width ESZ may not be possible in several instances.
The SC on June 3 also directed the principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) in each state and union territory to submit a report within three months, providing a list of activities continuing in the ESZ of every national park or wildlife sanctuary, after taking assistance from the government for satellite imaging or drone photography. The PCCFs have also been asked to ensure that no new permanent structure comes up within the existing ESZ boundaries, while those already carrying out any regulated activities will have to apply for permission afresh from the PCCF within six months.
State forest department officials expressed concern over the SC’s recent judgement, which dealt with applications by private miners and states for prescribing ESZs surrounding wildlife sanctuaries and national parks.
A senior official based in Mumbai, seeking anonymity, said, “The February 2011 guidelines which have been referred to in the recent SC judgement cannot possibly be applied. Yes, a report will be submitted to the court and we will conduct an assessment of the affected projects which have started in the last six months, but we cannot possibly increase the width of the ESZs around either SGNP or TCFS. The existing boundaries have been demarcated after great difficulty, and in a city like Mumbai where land is so scarce this is the best that we can do.”
Another official, who also did not wish to be named, said they had not yet received any orders relating to the SC judgement from the forest department’s headquarters in Nagpur, and that they were likely to oppose any such order on receipt. “The February 2011 guidelines referred to in the SC judgment actually cite the example of SGNP as a unique case in which a uniform ESZ would not be feasible given that the protected area is in the middle of a metropolitan city. This fact is true for TCFS as well. We will have to seek more clarity on this.”