The Environment Ministry has dithered, for the second time in three years, from bringing into force a law that will make about 56,825 sqkm of the ecologically-rich Western Ghats out of bounds for industrial development.
On February 27, the government resuscitated a draft notification that was first published in March 2014 that specified how much land in various coastal States encompassing the Western Ghats would be earmarked as practically-inviolate. Because it wasn’t made into a final law — thanks to objections from States — this lapsed in a year and a half and on September 2015, a fresh draft notification with the same numbers was reintroduced. This too would expire on March 4.
The reiterated February notification — open to public comment for 60 days — allows the Centre to create an Ecological Sensitive Area (ESA) in the Western Ghats (WG), a 1,500 km, ecologically-rich strip along the west coast spanning Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Regions declared as the ESA will not be allowed to host mining and quarrying projects and building thermal power plants.
Ever since a committee headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil recommended in 2011 that all of the Western Ghats be declared as the ESA — with only limited development allowed in graded zones— States have forced the Centre to consistently delay imposing the ESA restrictions. A committee headed by K. Kasturirangan, former ISRO chairman, recommended that only about 60,000 sq km — or about 37% of the WG and a significant reduction from that of the Gadgil committee — be declared as ESA.
Kerala managed to get this down to about 56,825 sqkm after widespread protests and an all-party resolution in the State forced the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to exclude 3,117 sqkm of settlements and agricultural land in the State from the ESA. Last week, the Chief Secretary of the State wrote to the MoEF that a further 887 sqkm of non-forest land be reduced.
Multiple officials in the MoEF told The Hindu that the 2017 notification, though technically open to public comment only for 60 days, would not automatically become law after that period. On the contrary, it paved the way for fresh representation from States on how much area could be demarcated as the ESA. “There has been no response from Tamil Nadu so far and next month we are even planning to discuss if there should be State-specific limits at all,” said an official privy to proceedings. “We have to be sensitive to the needs of development as well as conserving the pristine nature of the WG,” the official said.
Union Environment Minister Anil Dave is expected to have fresh meetings with States on the issue next month.
Another source familiar with the matter said a draft notification allowed the government 545 days to decide on taking a final call.