Will the SC get into the zone?

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The apex court may lift the interim ban on tiger tourism next week but the real game-changer is slotted for 2 November

THE INTERIM ban on tourism in core tiger forests will enter its 12th week when the Supreme Court convenes for the next hearing on 16 October. While the resumption of safari tourism in parts of core reserves is expected soon, suspense continues over what mitigation and punitive measures the court will come up with to regulate pollution, use of natural resources and land use (construction) at the edge of the forest.

Choked The blocked Kosi corridor at the Corbett National Park
Choked The blocked Kosi corridor at the Corbett National Park
Photo: Jay Mazoomdaar

Though tiger reserves have notified buffer areas under the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), there is no legal provision to check the consumptive growth of tourism infrastructure. It does not seem likely that the soon-to-be-notified eco-tourism guidelines will force any definitive restriction or penal structure. Since the menace of mushrooming resorts flourishes on non-forest land bordering forests, its most effective remedy cannot be sought under the WLPA. In fact, we found the solution in the Environment Protection Act (EPA) a decade ago but have been sitting on it since.

The Wildlife Conservation Strategy 2002 recommended that land within 10 km of national parks and sanctuaries should be notified as eco-fragile zones under the EPA. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) sought proposals from chief wildlife wardens of all states. But since densely populated habitations, including cities, fell within the proposed 10-km ring, many states objected that such demarcation would adversely affect development.

Therefore, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) decided in 2005 that the “delineation of eco-sensitive zones (ESZ) would have to be site-specific and relate to regulation, rather than prohibition, of specific activities”. But the states continued to drag their feet. In 2006, hearing a PIL, the SC directed the MOEF to seek ESZ proposals from all states within four weeks. The court also ordered that all cases, where environmental clearances were granted for projects within 10 km from protected forests, be referred to the NBWL. But given the lack of political will, few ESZs could be notified.

Last year, in a bid to end the deadlock, the MOEF issued a flexible guideline. While the width of an ESZ could still go up to 10 km or even more where sensitive corridors were present, it said that the width and the types or extent of regulations may not be uniform all around a reserve and could also differ from reserve to reserve. Most states remained unresponsive.

Finally, sensing the enormity of a case-to-case exercise, the SC-appointed Central Empowered Committee recommended a new graded formula last month. For four categories of protected forests — above 500 sq km, 200-500 sq km, 100-200 sq km and below 100 sq km — it proposed ESZ widths of 2 km, 1 km, 500 metres and 100 metres, respectively.

Though many have trashed the dilution as an invitation to mining and mega projects, this graded approach is pragmatic. For example, under a blanket 10-km width policy, forest areas of 400 (20×20) sq km could require 1,200 (40×40-400) sq km to be declared ESZ. But for a 100 (10×10) sq km forest, the ESZ requirement could be a mammoth 800 (30×30-100) sq km.

ESZ rules will be far more effective than some evasive eco-tourism guidelines in curbing resorts

However, the proposed ESZ widths need reconsideration. The few sizeable chunks of wilderness demand protective rings that stretch over a minimum of 5 km. The ecological integrity of smaller forests needs at least a 1-km low-impact zone to benefit at all. Also, these graded stipulations serve best as the minimum mandatory widths of ESZs and should be extended based on site-specific threats.

Hopefully, these concerns will be addressed when the SC hears the MOEF’s views on 2 November and sets the ball rolling for time-bound notification of ESZs across India. The potential is enormous. Rajasthan, for example, has proposed regulations that bar construction on more than 10 percent of land-holding within ESZs. Once notified, such rules will be far more effective than some evasive ecotourism guidelines in curbing proliferation of polluting and resource-guzzling resorts around our best forests.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist.
[email protected]

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