A day after the ministry of environment and forests released a statement further relaxing an already watered down environment protection rules for the Western Ghats, Jayanthi Natarajan, minister of state (independent charge) for environment and forests, resigned from the union council of ministers (See: MoEF allays fears of farming curbs in Western Ghats).
Reports quoting political pundits, however, said the 59-year-old minister's resignation comes in a shake up ahead of the Lok Sabha elections and that Natarajan is expected to be drafted for work relating to manifesto and other election matters.
The President of India accepted her resignation with immediate effect on the advice of the prime minister, an official release said, adding that minister of petroleum and natural gas M Veerappa Moily has been given the additional charge of the ministry of environment and forests.
The environment and forests ministry has now clarified the boundary of the Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) as delineated by the high level working group headed by Planning Commission member K Kasturirangan, as also the regulatory regime would be finalised only after assessing views of stakeholders, including state governments of the region.
''The final notification will be issued after the boundary of the ESA has been fine tuned after receiving inputs from stakeholders/state governments,'' an official release said.
Further, the ministry said, state governments may suggest modifications based upon physical verification.
The Kasurirangan panel, which was set up to address concerns of political parties and some state governments over the Madhav Gadgil Committee's recommendations for preservation of the delicate ecology of the Western Ghats, had recommended reservation of at least 37 per cent, or about 60,000 sq km, of the area covered by the Western Ghats as Ecologically Sensitive Area in order to avert an ecological disaster in the near future.
The Kasturirangan panel has identified approximately 37 per cent of the Western Ghats as ecologically sensitive. The identified Ecologically Sensitive Area covers about 60,000 sq km of natural landscape of Western Ghats and represents a continuous band of natural vegetation extending over a horizontal distance of 1,500 km. The ESA is spread across six states of Western Ghats region, viz, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The ESA also includes Protected Areas and World Heritage Sites of Western Ghats.
The recommendations given by the Kasurirangan panel neither put any fresh restrictions on land use in the ESA nor do they in any way impact the continued occupation of land in possession of the local people and affect their day-to-day activities or normal livelihood, the ministry has clarified.
The ministry said projects/activities that are not specifically prohibited in the ESA in the Western Ghats as identified and delineated by the Kasturirangan panel will be scrutinised and assessed for cumulative impacts and development needs, before granting environment clearance.
The Forest Rights Act will be observed in letter and spirit and the consent of the gram sabha will be mandatory for projects in ESA as recommended by the high level committee.
Further, the recommendations also do not prohibit or restrict any normal activities relating to plantations, agriculture or any other activity except those which have been specifically prohibited/restricted in the ESA, it said.
The ministry also reiterated that the prohibition of identified categories of projects/activities as stated in the ESA will apply only to new and/or expansion of these activities from the date specified therein. The existing projects/activities under these categories may continue, according to law, except for existing mines, which should be phased out within the next 5 years or expiry of their mine lease, whichever is earlier.
The high level working group has noted that a substantial portion of the Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri districts where a moratorium has been imposed, falls outside the definition of Western Ghats as identified by the high level working group (HLWG). The panel had recommended lifting of the moratorium in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts subject to certain stipulations.
All the other major recommendations made by the HLWG, particularly with respect to financial arrangements to incentivise green growth in Western Ghats, participation of and involvement of local communities in decision making, data monitoring systems especially the establishment of decision support and monitoring centre for Western Ghats are accepted.
The ministry said the latest office memorandum supersedes all other circulars issued earlier on the subject.
The HLWG under the chairmanship of K Kasturirangan, member (science) of the Planning Commission submitted its report to the ministry of environment and horests (MoEF) on 15 April 2013 and it was thereafter put in public domain by hosting on the MoEF website, and also disseminated to all stakeholders, including the six Western Ghat states for feedback and comments. All stakeholders were also invited to offer their views on the HLWG report. Thereafter, the ministry "in principle" accepted certain recommendations of the HLWG report, which include:
- The definition of the extent of the Western Ghats as demarcated by the HLWG;
- The Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) as identified and delineated by the HLWG in Western Ghats;
- The recommendations of the HLWG to completely ban mining, quarrying and sand mining as also thermal power plants and Red category of industries in the ESA;
- Hydro power being a relatively clean source of energy has been recommended to be allowed subject to stringent conditions;
- Wind energy is permitted in the ESA subject to applicable regulations;
The following category of new and/or expansion projects/activities will be prohibited in the ESA except those which have already been cleared:
- Mining, quarrying and sand mining,
- Thermal power plants,
- Building and construction projects of 20,000 sq m area and above,
- Township and area development projects with an area of 50 ha and above and /or with built up area of 1,50,000 sq m and above, and
- Red category of industries.