My first book review in Seminar!!!! Yay!!!!

the september issue of seminar (issue #613, titled ‘nature without borders’) has this book review by me.


INDIA’S NOTIFIED ECOLOGICALLY SENSITIVE AREAS (ESAs): The Story So Far by Meenakshi Kapoor, Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon. Kalpavriksh and WWF-India, Delhi, 2009.

THE draft National Environmental Tribunal Bill prepared in 2008 sought to dissolve all authorities set up under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, including all Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) authorities/committees, whose powers were sought to be transferred to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authorities – a suggestion that led the authors to study India’s experience with ESAs. How are they created? How are they different from India’s other legal provisions for wildlife conservation and habitat protection? What are the results like? The ESAs stand revealed as a concept with frightfully poor implementation till date, but with a lot of unrealized potential.

The ESAs can be traced back to Section 3(2)(v) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, which empowers the central government to take all measures it deems necessary to protect and improve the quality of the environment and prevent environmental pollution. It allows, the authors say, ‘for the restriction of areas in which certain developmental activities can be prohibited.’ Further, Section 5(1) of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986, lists criteria like topographic and climatic features of an area, its biological diversity, environmentally compatible land use, extensive cultivation, proximity to protected areas, etc, which can be considered while prohibiting or restricting certain operations. In the process, the focus of an ESA has evolved to be one of restricting industrial and developmental processes which have negative impacts on the environment.

That is the background. So, how has the concept fared? Not too well. For one, 20 years after Murud-Janjira, a small coastal village in Maharashtra’s Raigad district became India’s first ESA, the country has just eight ESAs in all. Apart from Murud-Janjira, there is Doon Valley, Dahanu taluka, parts of the Aravallis range in Haryana and Rajasthan, Numaligarh in Assam, the Taj Trapezium, Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani, and Matheran. The applications of other areas like Mount Abu and Sultanpur are pending.

This is strange. Where are the Andamans, the Lakshadweeps, other swathes of the Western Ghats and the North East? The low number of ESAs is all the more surprising when one realizes that they can be created in myriad ways. In three ESAs, the notification was the result of local opposition to a specific development project. In the other five, developmental activities which had been going on for a long while had abruptly gathered pace and were seen as threatening the region in question. Further, while Mahabaleshwar, Matheran, Aravallis, Doon Valley, Mount Abu and the Taj Trapezium came about due to court orders, Murud-Janjira, Dahanu and Numaligarh came about due to engagement with politicians. This diversity in notification raises a question on why there are so few ESAs in this country.

Further, even the existing ones are not doing well. Take the Doon Valley. While quarrying, the reason why Doon was declared an ESA, has been stopped, implementation of the notification has taken a back seat once Dehradun became the capital of Uttarakhand. Illegal construction is rampant. In Dahanu, locals are upset about the lack of developmental activity. As the book says, ‘The local elected representatives and their supporters were of the opinion that because of the Dahanu ESA notification, the taluka was not able to develop. They wanted the notification to be withdrawn or reviewed to facilitate developmental activities.’ In Mahabaleshwar and Matheran, locals similarly oppose their hill stations’ ESA status. Then, illegal mining continues in the Aravallis. Industry continues to set up shop in Murud-Janjira. In Numaligarh, new applications for industrial work continue to come in.

For all that, the ESAs come across as a concept with unrealized potential. As the authors say, the current system of conservation is dominated by the Protected Area Network. Not only are they limited in size, these are also areas where all human activity is prohibited. ESAs, on the other hand, are relevant to larger landscapes that experience multiple uses by different users. As the authors point out, Section 3(3) of the EPA has been designed to restrict industrial activity for the conservation of any kind of ecosystem – be it coasts (Murud-Janjira, Dahanu), forests (Aravallis, Numaligarh), plains (Taj Trapezium), hill stations (Mahabaleshwar-Panchgani, Matheran, Mount Abu, Doon Valley) or islands. It can also be used to conserve agro-biodiversity landscapes or areas where wild and agro-biodiversity form a contiguous stretch.

This creates intriguing possibilities. Not only can ESAs be used as an extra layer of protection around the protected areas, they can, as in the case of Numaligarh and Dahanu, help a region offset the environmental impacts of large projects coming up nearby. They can also help plan land use in most of the country, and help ensure large parts of India stay relatively environmentally intact.

For that to happen, of course, the MoEF will have to play a more proactive role – so far it has been little more than a respondent to requests from conservation groups, say the authors. They also suggest the criteria for declaring ESAs, currently based only on ecological sensitivity, be expanded to include what they call environment sensitivity. ‘Many of the areas that need protection from further environmental damage have no explicit environmental value like the presence of near-threatened or endemic species. Environmental sensitivity is a much broader term and encompasses more factors based on anthropogenic activities as compared to ecological sensitivity.’

The biggest quandary, however, seems to be around local support. As pointed out earlier, the ESAs enjoy little local support. By their very nature, ESAs will affect local livelihoods unless alternative (and more sustainable) avenues of development are delivered. Fix that, and a more benign model of development might yet fall into place.

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