The story so far: On July 7, the Kerala State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution urging the Central government to exclude the State’s human habitations, farmlands and public institutions from the purview of the Ecologically Sensitive Zones (ESZ), recently notified by the Supreme Court, to be set-up around all protected forests in the country.
The Assembly also called upon the Centre to notify the zones by considering the State government’s proposals that marked the ESZ as zero around 10 protected areas of the State, urging the union government to enact laws for the purpose.
Why is the ESZ notification controversial in Kerala?
The June 3 directive by a three-judge SC Bench consisting of Justices L. Nageswara Rao, B. R. Gavai and Anirudha Bose to have a mandatory ESZ of minimum one kilometre measured from the demarcated boundary of every protected forest, including the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, has stirred the hornet’s nest in Kerala where any regulatory mechanism on land and land use patterns would have political ramifications.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had notified the draft ESZs of 20 of the 23 protected areas in the State while issuing the final notification of the Mathikettan Shola National park way back in December 2020. However, the draft notification of the Periyar Tiger Reserve is yet to be published though the State government had submitted the proposal earlier, and the State is yet to submit the draft ESZ of Karimpuzha Wildlife Sanctuary, the newest one in Kerala, located in Malappuram district.
What worries the State is the possible impact of the apex court’s order on its unique landscape. Nearly 30% of Kerala is forested land and the Western Ghats occupies 48% of the State. Moreover, there is the network of lakes and canals and wetlands and the 590-kilometres-long coastline, which are all governed by a series of environmental conservation and protection legislations, leaving little space for its 3.5 crore population to occupy. With an average population density of 900 persons per square kilometre, much higher than the national average, the demographic pressure on the available land is unusually high in the State, as noted by the State Assembly’s resolution.
The State Government apprehends that the SC’s notification may worsen the ground situation as it would adversely impact the interests of the State besides upsetting the lives of millions living near the protected areas.
How did the State’s earlier efforts to draft ESZ notifications go?
Earlier, while preparing the draft ESZ notifications for its protected areas including the Malabar, Idukki, Aralam, Kottiyoor, Shendurney and Wayanad wildlife sanctuaries, the State Government had taken care to exclude the areas with high population density, government and quasi-government institutions, and public institutions from the ambit of the notification. The marking of the ESZ for the protected areas that shared the forest boundary with the neighbouring States was a peaceful affair as there were no human habitations in between.
However, the apex court’s recent order has changed the picture and forced the State government to re-look the ESZs of at least 10 protected areas which were earlier marked as zero.
What has been the reaction to the directive?
The apex court order comes a decade after the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) report, aka Gadgil report, that had radically influenced the socio-political, economic and ecological narratives in the State. Though not to the level of the high-pitched public unrest and protests that the State witnessed during the days preceding the WGEEP report, the ESZ notification too has triggered state-wide protests. As it occurred during the post WGEEP days, a section of the Church has openly come out against the notification. The Church groups have also demanded the recalling of the apex court order.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, a powerful body catering to the special needs of the apostolate in the State, termed the apex court verdict as unfortunate as it feared that the order will upset the lives of thousands of settler farmers and people living on the forest fringes. The forum apprehended that the order will effectively turn four lakh acres around the 23 wildlife sanctuaries in the State into buffer zones, thus hitting around 1.5 lakh families.
Since June 3, both the ruling Left Front and the Opposition have observed hartals in the hilly districts of the State, protesting the Supreme Court directive.
What next for Kerala?
Kerala is pinning its hope on the Centre’s stand that it was willing to discuss its concerns with the State government. The State government has also decided to explore the option of approaching the Central Empowered Committee, as directed by the Supreme Court in its order, to convince the forum of the need to maintain zero ESZ in the areas of human habitation. It may also approach the apex court seeking exemption from the one kilometre ESZ regime and to limit it to zero wherever required.
- Nearly 30% of Kerala is forested land and the Western Ghats occupies 48% of the State.
- Kerala apprehends that the SC’s notification would adversely impact the interests of the State besides upsetting the lives of millions living near the protected areas.
- As it occurred during the post WGEEP days, a section of the Church has openly come out against the notification.