Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel recommendation to MoEF

The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) has recommended to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest to provisionally notify the limits of Ecologically Sensitive Zones. It suggested that the final delimitation be carried out with extensive inputs from local communities and local bodies.

The panel, headed by Madhav Gadgil, had categorised the 142 taluks in the Ghats region into three Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ) based on the “composite scores of ecological significance derived from the database” generated” by it. While the regions of highest sensitivity were categorised as ESZ 1, high sensitivity areas were designated as ESZ 2 and regions of moderate sensitivity as ESZ 3.

The areas with ecological sensitivity scores “at the level of Protected Areas and above within the same State” were considered for the ESZ 1 category, with the “proviso that the total area under Protected Areas and ESZ 1 be limited to 60 per cent to balance the development needs of States.” The Protected Areas, including the Wild Life Sanctuaries and National Parks, were treated as a separate entity.

Zonation of areas

According to the nomenclature followed by the panel, Maharashtra had the maximum taluks notified as ESZ 1 (32 taluks), followed by Karnataka (26), Kerala (14) and Tamil Nadu (9).

In Kerala, Thodupuzha, Udumbanchola, Devikulam, Peerumedu, Tellicherry, Punalur, Mannarkkad, Chittur, Ranni, Nedumangad, Mukundapuram, Vythiri, Mananthavadi and Sultan Bathery taluks were included in the ESZ 1. In ESZ 2, Kanjirapalli and Thrissur taluks of Kerala were included whereas Hosdurg, Kottarakara, Pala, Mahe, Malappuram, Alathur, Mallapalli and Vadakkancheri were included in the third group.

The “final demarcation of the zones must be based on extensive inputs from local communities and local bodies, namely, Gram Panchayats, Taluka Panchayats, Zilla Parishads, and Nagarpalikas, under the overall supervision of the Western Ghats Ecology Authority (WGEA), State level Ecology Authorities and District Ecology Committees.” It would be “inappropriate to depend exclusively on government agencies for constitution and management of ESZs.”

The panel suggested barring Genetically Modified crops, Special Economic Zones and new hill stations across the Western Ghats. Phasing out the use of plastic bags in shops, commercial establishments and tourist spots within three years has also been proposed. “Water courses, water bodies, special habitats, geological formations, biodiversity rich areas, and sacred groves” should be considered as no-go areas for “all settlements and built areas/to be developed areas” and “public lands should not be converted to private lands,” it suggested.

For ESZ 1, the conversion of forestland for non-forest uses or agricultural to non-agricultural purposes will not be allowed. The existing hotels and resorts should follow the tourism policy of the Ministry which should be appropriately refined by WGEA. The road and other infrastructural expansion plans should be submitted for Environment Impact Assessment scrutiny by the Urban Local bodies or Local Planning Authorities before its execution, it was suggested.

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