The environment ministry has notified the draft of a pruned eco-sensitive zone in the biodiversity-rich Western Ghats spanning six states, limiting restricted activities in the region to only mining, thermal power plants, big townships and critically polluting industries.
The revised draft limits the eco-sensitive zone in the Western Ghats to 56,825 sq km or 25 per cent of the total Western Ghats area, which is 3,125 sq km lower than demarcated in the earlier draft issued by former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan on basis of the Kasturirangan panel report (See: Kasturirangan panel dilutes Gadgil recommendations on Western Ghats).
The Kasturirangan panel had recommended contiguous eco-sensitive zones (ESZs) or 30 per cent of the Western Ghats in every state, whereas the new notification provides small ESZs, excluding human habitats and plantations.
The draft notification, approved by the ministry on 4 September, but was not made available on its website, gives a long rope for phasing out prohibited activities even in uninhabited zones of the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats.
According to the new draft, all existing mines in the ESZs, which do not include human habitats, will be phased out in five years. However, no new thermal power plants or expansion of existing ones will be allowed.
Only those industries that fall under the 'red' category, as classified by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), will be prohibited in the zones. The CPCB's new classification, however, brings down the number of most polluting industries that come under the `red' category to 59, down from 89 in the 2012 classification.
The fresh draft supersedes the earlier notification of 10 March 2014, issued under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 for declaring an Ecologically Sensitive Area in the Western Ghats covering the six States of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
While responding to the draft notification, many stakeholders and state governments of the Western Ghats region had expressed apprehensions and concerns with respect to Ecologically Sensitive Area in the Western Ghats.
The ministry said the new draft is intended to clarify the provisions stated in the draft notification and to dispel the apprehensions and concerns raised by stakeholders with respect to provisions of the draft notification and the concept of Ecologically Sensitive Area.
The ministry also made it clear that the focus of legislation is to ''conserve the biodiversity of the Western Ghats region, while providing adequate opportunities for livelihood security of the local people in the broad paradigm of Ecologically Sensitive Area, which is not just about regulation of development, but is intimately linked to positive promotion of environment-friendly and socially inclusive development.''
''The MoEF&CC clarifies that the lives of about 50 million people living in Western Ghats region will not be affected. Their agriculture and plantation will not be adversely impacted. Their normal businesses and their other activities will also not get adversely affected.''
''The government is fully committed to protecting the ecology and sanctity of Western Ghats. At the same time, the government is determined to ensure sustainable development of the population staying in the Western Ghats region,'' minister of state (independent charge) of environment, forest and climate change Prakash Javadekar said.
However, the draft also noted that the importance of Western Ghats as a global biodiversity hotspot and a treasure trove of biological diversity harbouring many endemic species of flowering plants, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates need not be over-emphasized.
It is also the origin of Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery and a number of other rivers of peninsular India, upon which much of the economy of the region is dependent. Therefore, there is a need to conserve and protect the unique biodiversity of Western Ghats, while allowing for sustainable and inclusive development of the region.