SC relaxes 2022 order on eco-sensitive zones around forests

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday provided relief to the states by modifying last year's verdict, which had established a 1 km eco-sensitive zone around protected forests in the country. The court said the mandatory 1 km ESZ and restriction on construction activities mentioned in the order of June 3, 2022 will not be applicable to already notified forests.

The bench of Justice BR Gavai said that the “purpose of declaring ESZs is not to hamper the day to day activities of the citizens” and stated the restrictions in the order dated June 3, 2022 will not be applicable to the notified ESZs.

The court also considered Kerala's case in arriving at a conclusion in the appeal against the 2022 order. “As was pointed out by the counsel for one of the States, the entire municipal area of the Sulthan Bathery Block Panchayat is situated within the ESZ area,” the court noted.

“We are therefore inclined to allow the present I.A. The direction in paragraph 56.1 of the order dated 3rd June 2022 (supra) is modified and clarified that the directions contained therein would not be applicable to the ESZs in respect of which a draft and final notification has been issued by the MoEF & CC and in respect of the proposals which have been received by the Ministry.

“We further clarify that the direction contained in paragraph 56.1 of the order dated 3rd June 2022 (supra) would not be applicable where the National Parks and Sanctuaries are located on inter-State borders and/or share common boundaries,” the order states.

In the 2022 order, the court stated: “Each protected forest, that is national park or wildlife sanctuary must have an ESZ of minimum one kilometre measured from the demarcated boundary of such protected forest in which the activities proscribed and prescribed in the Guidelines of 9th February 2011 shall be strictly adhered to. For Jamua Ramgarh wildlife sanctuary, it shall be 500 metres so far as subsisting activities are concerned.” This direction will not be applicable to any of the 22 protected forests in Kerala which already has a final or draft notification in place for the ESZ.

The court observed that its previous order was impractical.

“If the direction as issued by this Court in paragraph 56.5 of the order dated 3rd June 2022 (supra) is continued, then no permanent structure would be permitted to come up for whatsoever purpose in the aforesaid ESZs. As already pointed out from the aforesaid examples, hundreds of villages are situated within the ESZs in the country. If no permanent construction is to be permitted for any purpose, a villager who is desirous to reconstruct his house would not be permitted. Similarly, if there is an extension in their family and some additional construction is required for accommodating the enlarged family, the same would also not be permitted. Similarly, if the Government decides to construct schools, dispensaries, anganwadis, village stores, water tanks and other basic structures for improvement of the life of the villagers, the same would also not be permitted. The effect of the order will be to prevent the State or the Central Government from constructing roads and provide other facilities to the villagers,” the order reads.

The latest order also noted that "mining within the National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary and within an area of one kilometre from the boundary of such National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary shall not be permissible.”

Last year, the apex court issued an order to establish a 1km eco-sensitive zone surrounding protected forests in the country. In the order, the court-mandated restricting activities in the area to protect forest coverage. This had triggered widespread protests in the state since Kerala has a large population in the proposed buffer zone area.

Kerala and the union government then approached the apex court pointing out the practical issues in implementing the order. Following this, the court acknowledged the difficulties faced by the people and agreed to consider relaxations to the buffer zone.

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