Mining banned, agriculture, plantations and rural activities not regulated, Ministry clarifies

The Union Environment Ministry took another step towards implementing the Kasturirangan report on Western Ghats by kick-starting the process of draft notification for Ecologically Sensitive Areas (ESA) in six States. But, keeping the protests in Kerala in mind, it made explicitly clear that plantations, agriculture and other routine activities in the ESA declared under the Environment Protection Act, 1972 would not be restricted or impacted.

The Ministry put out an office memorandum on Friday stating, "As a follow up to the in-principle acceptance of the High Level Working Group report (on Western Ghats) by the Ministry, relevant steps would be initiated to operationalise the recommendations. A draft notification declaring the identified region of Western Ghats as an Ecologically Sensitive Area along the lines accepted by the Ministry would be issued and put up on the website of the Ministry for inputs for stakeholders.”

The Ministry had earlier given an in-principle approval to the report by High Level working group on Western Ghats headed by Planning Commission member K. Kasturirangan. The group had recommended declaring 37 per cent of the area of Western Ghats as ESA under the Environment Protection Act, 1972. Under the law only activities explicitly mentioned in formal notification of the ESA are banned while others are permitted by default. But, several sections of society in Kerala had gone up in arms against the decision fearing impact on plantations and agriculture.

The Ministry clarified that the regulatory regime under the ESA would be imposed on only after comments from the States and other stakeholders and the final boundaries of the ESA too would be modified based upon physical verification that State governments may suggest.

While these conditions were implicit in the earlier order of the Centre, the Environment Ministry took pains to explain that the final declaration of the zones where certain restricted industrial activities are banned would only be done over time based on consultations with stakeholders.

The Ministry also reiterated that any expansion of or new mining, quarrying and sand mining would be banned. New thermal power plants, heavily polluting industries, building and construction projects of 20,000 sq. metre and above, and township and area development projects between 50 hectare or with a built up area of 1,50,000 sq. meter would also not be allowed.

All projects that are not expressly banned by central government orders too would be permitted only with the consent of the gram sabhas (village councils).

The Ministry again noted that only in the case of mining would existing projects be phased out within the next five years or expiry of the mine lease, whichever is earlier, In other cases only new and expansion of existing projects and activities would be banned and existing projects would continue.

The political sensitivities of Kerala had clearly been kept in mind by the Environment Ministry in putting out the final order. The order read, “The recommendations given by the HLWG neither put any fresh restrictions on land use in ESA nor do they in any way impact the continued occupation of land in possession of local people and affect their day to day activities or normal livelihood.”

The note further read, “The recommendations also do not prohibit or restrict any normal activities relating to plantations, agriculture or any other activity except those which have been expressly prohibited/restricted in the ESA.”