The Union environment ministry will be soon issuing a draft notification declaring the Western Ghats as eco-sensitive area (ESA) for the second time after a similar draft in 2014 expired due to a lack of consensus among states and the Centre. Karnataka, one of the six states to be affected, has already said it will not accept the fresh notification as “it will have an adverse effect on the state’s economy”.
A draft notification regarding ecologically sensitive areas, issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF), has been delayed for over a year due to on-going negotiations between the Centre and the states. The initial draft, in March 2014, which was to be finalized in 545 days or by September 2015, has been repeatedly pushed.
The notice earmarked 60,000 square kilometers, or 37 percent of the Ghats, as ecologically sensitive. However, it was protested by the states, especially Kerala, as ESAs restrict developmental activity. The Centre has since decided to accept recommendations from each state government.
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. According to the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, 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 ecologically 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 categorize 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 MoEF notification is based on findings of a High-Level Working Group, also known as the Kasturirangan committee. The government-appointed committee had said that the natural landscape of the Ghats constitutes only 41 percent, or which 90 percent or 60,000 square kilometers 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.
The notification was deemed too environmentally friendly by stakeholder states.
The Western Ghats was included as a ‘World Natural Heritage Site’ by UNESCO in 2012. According to the organization, the Ghats, which are older than the Himalayas, is home to at least 325 globally threatened flora, fauna, bird, amphibian, reptile and fish species. It has been recognized as one of the world’s eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity.