The draft notification of Western Ghats Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) covering about 56,825 sq. km has been put in public domain by the Union Environment and Forests Ministry. The notification, dated March 10, along the lines the Ministry had announced earlier, has left the demarcation of the ESA in Kerala to the State authorities by banking on their evaluation of the Western Ghats boundaries.

The draft notification will be open to comments for 60 days from all stakeholders before the Environment Ministry passes the final order. This leaves space for other States too to ask for amendments to the demarcated boundaries.

This is slated to be the largest ESA declared under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 in the country. The draft notification signalled the penultimate round of a long lasting debate kicked off by the Union government when in 2010, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh set up the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil. The panel’s report created a stir in some of the six States, especially Kerala, and forced the Union government to set up a second high level panel to review the Gadgil report, this one under Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan.

Unlike the Gadgil report, the Kasturirangan panel took pains to delineate densely inhabited areas from forested patches and take a relative middle-path to balancing demands of development and maintaining the integrity of the biodiversity hotspot.

Jayanthi Natarajan, Environment Minister in 2013, passed orders implementing the panel’s report after the National Green Tribunal stepped in to pursue the case. She followed the Kasturirangan report in almost all its recommendations but keeping the protests in Kerala in mind clarified that agrarian practices and plantations would not be either stopped or restricted. But this did not assuage several powerful lobbies in Kerala leading to a political challenge for the Congress-led United Democratic Front government in the State.

Under pressure, the UPA government at the Centre relented and permitted the State to redraw the boundaries of the eco-sensitive zone with the third Environment Minister grappling with the issue in UPA2, Veerappa Moily accepting the new demarcation days before the election model code of conduct coming into force.

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