An ecologically sensitive area is one that is protected by the government given the sheer number of species, plants and animals endemic to the region. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 does not mention the word “Eco-Sensitive Zones”. However, Section 3(2)(v) of the Act, says that Central Government can restrict areas in which any industries, operations or processes or class of industries, operations or processes shall not be carried out or shall be carried out subject to certain safeguards. Besides, Rule 5(1) of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986 states that central government can prohibit or restrict the location of industries and carrying on certain operations or processes on the basis of considerations like the biological diversity of an area, maximum allowable limits of concentration of pollutants for an area, environmentally compatible land use, and proximity to protected areas. The above two clauses have been effectively used by the government to declare ESZs or EFAs. Thus, the government can prohibit industrial operations such as mining, sand quarrying and building thermal power plants in sensitive areas.
The definition offered by the MoEF: “An ecological sensitive area is a bio-climatic unit (as demarcated by entire landscapes) in the Western Ghats wherein human impacts have locally caused irreversible changes in the structure of biological communities (as evident in number/ composition of species and their relative abundances) and their natural habitats.” To categorise an area as ecologically sensitive, the government looks at topography, climate and rainfall, land use and land cover, roads and settlements, human population, biodiversity corridors and data of plants and animal species.
The Western Ghats were declared an ecological hotspot in 1988.The Western Ghats was included as a ‘World Natural Heritage Site’ by UNESCO in 2012. According to the organisation, the Ghats, which are older than the Himalayas, are home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species. It has been recognised as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity.
GOI constituted in 2010 a 14-member Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), under the chairmanship of noted ecologist Madhav Gadgil, to look into measures required to arrest the widespread ecological devastation that the fragile Western Ghats were facing from human activities.
The panel submitted its report in 2011.
The Gadgil Committee divided the Western Ghats into three ecologically sensitive zones — highest (ESZ1), high (ESZ2) and moderate sensitivity (ESZ3), in addition to the Protected Areas, which are managed under regulations prescribed under pertinent acts such as the Wildlife Protection Act. It suggested that ESZ1 and ESZ2 would be largely ‘no-gone’ zones for mining, polluting industries as well as large-scale development activities, including new railway lines. It also objected to new dams, thermal power stations or massive windmill farms or new townships in ESZ1.
The panel, however, said the local communities and gram sabhas will have a larger say in deciding on matters relating to the ecology of these regions. It also called for stricter regulation on tourism, phasing out of plastics, chemical fertilisers and a ban on diversion of forest land into non-forest applications and conversion of public lands into private lands.
The High Level Working Group, headed by Kasturirangan, on the other hand, did away with the graded approach in terms of ecological sensitivity, divided the Western Ghats into cultural lands, where there are currently human settlements, and natural lands and recommended declaring cultural lands — around 60,000 sq-km or 37 per cent of the total — into ecologically sensitive area (ESA).
Kasturirangan committee had said that the natural landscape of the Ghats constitutes only 41 per cent, or which 90 percent or 60,000 square kilometres were identified as ecologically sensitive. The committee suggested phasing out current mining projects within five years, or when mining leases were about to expire. It recommended that infrastructure and development projects be subject to environmental clearance, and that villages in ESA be involved in decision making regarding future projects.