There have been two dominant responses to the tragedy in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. One, that this is a freak event and may never happen again. The other, united political opinion that environmental norms were violated in construction and planning, which has exacerbated the scale of the disaster.

With loss and tragedy at its heart, the debate on appropriate planning in seismically and hydrologically sensitive areas has been rekindled, with the need to relook the very idea of a zone that is “ecologically sensitive.” Ricocheting between the Centre and State, are proposals for declaring Eco-Sensitive Zones (ESZ), which in the past were shot down on grounds of impeding development. Further, ESZ guidelines so far have had a focus around protected areas. There is a need to broaden the scope of ESZs in order to plan for both man and nature.

As buffer

This week, the National Green Tribunal issued a show cause notice to Uttarakhand, asking the State “whether permissions to construct are backed by any data study or master/zonal development plans” in the light of the flash floods, and asserting that the issue of rampant construction needs to be looked at “in the larger public interest.”

In 2002, the National Board for Wildlife, under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, discussed the concept of the ESZ the idea being to create a “shock absorber” or a “zone of transition” around national parks, sanctuaries and protected areas. States were free to declare such areas in other places as well. Construed by several States as a no go for development, they have still not come forward to declare an ESZ around all their protected areas. In 2006, the Supreme Court reminded the States to declare these zones, saying that non-compliance would have the Court stepping in to enforce a default 10 kilometre ESZ around protected areas. Still met with a sullen silence, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) issued “Guidelines for the declaration of ESZ around National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries” in 2011, adding, diplomatically, that ESZs were in their nature “regulatory” and not “prohibitory.” As further reconciliation, it said that these zones were site-specific, and need not have the same prescription over all protected areas.

The concept was placed under the aegis of the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) (1986), which has a central focus on checking pollution. Not surprisingly then, successful ESZ notifications so far have, on paper, pertained mostly to major polluting sources and extractive industries being kept out from protected sanctuaries. Very few notifications have been made to tackle difficult and multi-departmental questions of what, how much and where to build in places which are not protected areas but are ecologically sensitive; some would argue that these are areas which urgently need “zones of transition” in the absence of any active environment protection. ESZ declarations for areas such as Pachmarhi and Matheran are exceptions, and they consider planning for a mosaic of human settlements, municipal layouts and protected areas.

Impact assessments

The concept of a “shock absorber” in ESZ guidelines is an important one which needs more application, even in regions beyond protected areas. What should be planning processes around natural — and thus potentially stochastic [having a random probability pattern] systems — such as rivers? How are plans to avert a loss of life and infrastructure around fragile areas to be? Can the meaning of “sensitive” be better defined? Some of the answers exist in the current Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification (2006). For considering projects such as new development, change in land use, and erecting structures, the EIA asks some pertinent questions: whether the project causes a temporary or permanent change in land use or topography and if this use will increase in the future; whether the area is under legislation for ecological, landscape, cultural or related values; whether the area is susceptible to natural hazards. Then, it asks about the cumulative impact of the project and places considering “consequential development” as a factor to be examined.

These, sadly, have often been overlooked in clearing development projects across India. But they provide a template to examine the question of what and where is sensitive and how we need to plan not just for the present but in the future too.

This is where the second concept of “regulation” in the 2011 ESZ guidelines assumes significance. The moot point is that States have the sovereignty to build, but this needs to be done within a sustainable and clear framework. A compelling issue is that of water and rivers. With so many rivers, we still have no clear policy on river beds and flood plains — most moratoriums or regulations on building in these sensitive areas come from court orders. Water and hydrological systems are now referred to globally as “natural infrastructure.” The idea is that systems such as rivers perform a range of ecosystem services — water provision, storage and flood control. If left to perform as per natural workings, chances are that there will be self-regulation within the system. The rationale for not building on river beds and flood plains (an example is the Delhi High Court ordering the demolition of structures within 300 metres of the Yamuna), is that the flood plain needs to be able to “flood” (and thus absorb) excess water. This area needs to be kept inviolate.

A River Regulation Zone policy, on the lines of the existing Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, needs to be revived. Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are both seismically active zones. With fast flowing and turbulent rivers, they are also States which have riverine natural infrastructure — which require inviolate spaces or “shock absorbers” — but which are not factored into planning. Buildings on river beds or flood plains have become easy casualties to floods.

Planning ahead

Natural systems are stochastic and we are always exposed to the danger of natural disaster. In a manner then, we can never be fully prepared for freak events. This also leads us to the reality that planning for areas which are environmentally sensitive, stochastic, or prone to breakdown, has to be active. Re-examining the regulation, if not prohibition, of building activity and change in land use in such areas needs to be done immediately. The MoEF has to take the lead in reframing sensitive zone directives for all States under the EPA and EIA notification, considering more than just protected areas as cores. The term “sensitive” needs to be better defined, with inputs from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Ministry of Earth Sciences. The NDMA has plotted a hazard map for India, considering the probability of seismic activity. Severe seismic activity zones, considering inviolate and permissible construction zones in biologically rich and active areas, along with answering the concerns raised by the EIA notification, can form the foundation for identifying sensitive zones and laying down due processes for them. Issues like where can man-made infrastructure come up, which zones can be urbanisable, the height of buildings and where topography can be consciously changed in ESZs need to be addressed. For rivers and mountains, we need to consider the cumulative impact of mining, extraction, quarrying and channelization through levees. Past activity can set the tone for setting up sensitive zones.

A more evolved and harder ESZ regime is no longer a choice, but a necessity.

(Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed are personal. E-mail:

More In: Comment | Opinion