Decision comes on the eve of poll schedule announcement

Habitations, plantations and agricultural areas in the 123 villages falling within the Western Ghat eco-sensitive area will be taken off the protective zone as demanded by the Kerala government.

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests announced the decision on Tuesday, a day before the Election Commission is likely to announce the Lok Sabha poll schedule, with which the model code of conduct will come into force.

Yielding to political pressure building up in the State for months, the Ministry said: “The State government is of the view that agricultural lands, plantations and habitations may be kept out of the Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESAs). Recommendations of the State government were examined, and it has been decided to accept them…”

To do justice to the five other States in the Western Ghats region, the Ministry opened the space for them to approach the Centre. “It has also been decided that the MoEF will consider recommendations of the other States in the Western Ghats region, based on a similar on-ground exercise, if such proposals are forwarded to the MoEF within 60 days of issuance of the draft notification.”

In November 2013, the Ministry passed two orders for implementing the Kasturirangan Committee’s report. One of the orders, accepting the report in principle, said a formal ‘draft notification’ demarcating the geographical boundaries of the ESA under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, would shortly be put out for comments. Under the law, the draft notification would have been open for comments for two months before it was notified after amendments that the Centre may accept based on inputs.

In a parallel second order, the Ministry banned, with immediate effect, any environmental clearance panel, either at the Centre or in the six States, from entertaining proposals for new polluting industries, mining, thermal power plants or large construction projects in the villages. The second order had not been withdrawn till Tuesday evening when the press release claiming a revised boundary for the ESA was sent out by the Ministry.

The Ministry’s November 2013 orders had specifically mentioned that agricultural, rural livelihood and plantation practices would not be banned. But that offer did not assuage the sentiments of powerful sections in Kerala which also found political support to mount pressure on the UPA government to step back.

While the new Minister, M. Veerappa Moily, did make a noise initially in favour of easing the orders, the Ministry was in a bind in an ongoing case before the National Green Tribunal. The Tribunal had warned that any complete withdrawal of the orders could lead to implementation of the Madhav Gadgil Committee’s report, which recommended far wider areas in the six States and stricter regulations than what the Kasturirangan Committee did.

At the last hearing, the Tribunal gave the ministry a month to take a clear stance. Unlike the Madhav Gadgil Committee’s report, the Kasturirangan Committee demarcated ‘cultural landscapes’ from ‘natural landscapes,’ reducing the proposed protected area to 60,000 square kilometres. The Kasturirangan Committee kept out these cultural landscapes (area with a high population density), stating “close to 60 per cent of the Western Ghats region is under cultural landscape — human-dominated land use of settlements, agriculture and plantations.” But this still did not find acceptance with lobbies in Kerala.

While issuing the press release on Tuesday, the Ministry did not put out the draft notification for the ESA, stating it would be done subsequently. Specific changes that it may have made in the nature of restrictions as well as the specific areas proposed for the protective zone remained unknown.

The release only said: “The Ministry is now in the process of issuance of a draft notification which, among other things, will include the demarcation and boundaries of Ecologically Sensitive Areas, as identified by the High-Level Working Group [the Kasturirangan Committee], seeking comments of various stakeholders.”

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