The Central Government is expected to issue a draft notification excluding about 2,500 sq km of human settlements, plantations and agricultural land from the Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) earmarked by the High Level Working Group (HLWG) for conservation of the Western Ghats headed by K. Kasturirangan, according to Oommen V. Oommen, chairman of a three-member panel set up by the state to study the impact of the HLWG report.

Prof. Oommen, who represented Kerala at an official discussion convened by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in New Delhi on Thursday, said he had received an assurance from MoEF officials that the draft notification on implementation of the HLWG report would be issued in a day or two. He said the official delegation from Kerala had submitted land-use records and other documents to convince the MoEF officials of the need to take stakeholders into confidence while implementing the report.

Talking to The Hindu at the venue of the National Science Day celebrations here on Friday, he said the exemption of 2,500 sq km from the ESA regulations, including quarrying, mining, Red category industries, thermal power plants and construction of townships and buildings, would help remove the apprehensions of the people and ensure their involvement in the implementation of the HLWG report. “As beneficiaries of the Western Ghats conservation, it is the people who matter.”

Prof. Oommen said an expert committee comprising officials from the Kerala State Remote Sensing and Environment Centre (KSRSEC), Centre for Earth Science Studies and the Kerala State Biodiversity Board had validated the field reports and maps submitted by panchayat-level committees set up to verify the extent of ESAs in Kerala following widespread opposition to the HLWG’s demarcation based on satellite data.

“The expert committee’s assessment of the land use maps revealed that 2,500 sq km demarcated by the HLWG comprises settlements, farms and plantations. We have urged the MoEF to declassify this area as ESA in view of the mounting apprehensions of the public,” Prof. Oommen said.

The Kasturirangan committee had earmarked 123 villages spread over 13,108 sq km in Kerala as ESA, a figure including 12,477 sq km of natural landscape. Records produced by the Forest Department show the extent of the forest cover to be 11,309 sq km, including 9,108 sq km of reserve forest, 1,837 sq km of Environmentally Fragile Land (EFL) and 364 sq km of proposed reserve forest, while the maps available with the KSRSEC show the forest cover to be 9,997 sq km.

Prof. Oommen said the state had offered to take up the conservation of almost 1,000 sq km outside the reserve forest area. The figure represents the difference between the KSREC data and the reserve forest area shown in the Forest Department map.

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